Saturday, May 20, 2017

Poker Pro and Chess Master Nate Solon

I had the great pleasure of interviewing FM Nate Solon. Admittedly, Nate discovered Better Chess Training first and through several conversations during previous articles, I decided that it was time to invite him for an interview. Mr. Solon generously accepted. 
My questions are in bold.

Learning to Play and Getting to Master Level

Better Chess Training (BCT): Tell me about your chess beginnings. How old were you?

FM Nate Solon
I started playing around fourth grade, so about nine years old. Many people learn chess from their dad, but my dad and I learned at the same time. I remember we had a set where the moves were displayed on the pieces. Initially we were evenly matched, but I surpassed him pretty quickly.

BCT: At what age did you start playing tournament chess?

Checking my rating history, I see my first tournament was in 1995 when I was ten. I started playing in tournaments not too long after I learned how to play.

BCT: On your way to master level, where there any difficult plateaus at certain ratings levels? How did you overcome them?

My rating graph is fairly smooth, with a small dip around 2000. I definitely remember feeling frustrated many times that I wasn’t improving as quickly as I wanted to, but I don’t remember any specific “aha!” moments where I consciously realized something that made a big difference. It was more a continuous grind of playing, and then all of a sudden I would get stronger.

BCT: Did you have any coaches as you improved along the way?

My first coach was the owner of the chess club where I first started playing. He was around 1700 strength. One of my weaknesses early on was playing too cautiously or passively and he encouraged me to play more aggressively. I remember a tournament game in which I defeated him with a wild, sacrificial attack. It was probably totally unsound, but it showed that I had learned the lesson. He was very proud. Looking back, I think that shows what a generous and insightful teacher he was. He was able to help me grow as a player and when I used what he taught me to beat him, he was more happy for me than disappointed about losing.

Later on, I worked with a full-time chess teacher who was around 2400 strength. He was able to help me with more technical parts of my game.

BCT: Did you have any books that made a big impression on you in your climb up the ratings ladder?

I had a puzzle book early on that had a mix of checkmates, tactics, studies, and even things like retrograde puzzles. I was really fascinated by that. As far as strategy, I read the Play Winning Chess series by Yasser Seirawan and Jeremy Silman. There are probably a lot of good books for beginners, but those served me well.

My first teacher gave me the Zurich 1953 book by David Bronstein and I spent a lot of time going over those games. I think good annotated games are probably one of the best things to study, especially early on. Other books I remember include My System - couldn’t really make heads or tails of it - and Fire on Board by Shirov - I was very impressed by the games, but didn’t really understand them. I also remember spending a lot of time on Reassess Your Chess.

Overall, my approach to chess books (and chess in general) was not very organized. I skimmed many more books than I read, but I was always thinking about chess.

Approach to Chess

BCT: Do you have a specific approach or style to your chess?

I think poker has taught me to be pragmatic (I’ve been playing poker for a living for about eight years). I’m a lot more open to the idea that many approaches work and it’s not always necessary to play the “best” move than I used to be when I was just a chess player.

As far as my own style, I tend to have a good feel for the initiative and the energy of the pieces. I’m pretty dangerous if you give me an attack, but I’m weaker when it comes to defending or navigating murky positions.

BCT: What are the similarities and differences between poker and chess?

They have a lot of similarities and a lot of differences. They both have very deep strategy; the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know. You have to study and practice for a long time to get good.

The biggest difference is the level of variance. In chess, it’s rare to lose to a much weaker player, and if you do, you can usually point to the mistake that caused it. In poker, you lose to weaker players all the time. And I mean really weak players, the poker equivalent of someone starting the game with f3, g4 or something. But then you lose. That can be tough to deal with, especially if chess is your frame of reference.
BCT: I've noticed several high level chess players have delved into poker at a professional level...this could be another topic that we discuss in a future conversation!

BCT: Do you have a favorite player and what do you like about that player?

I’ll say two - one to watch and one to imitate.

My favorite player to watch is Tal. His games are completely insane. Most people like to gain some kind of advantage, then consolidate, make things safe, and try to gain another advantage. Tal just leaves everything floating in the air all the time. Even after playing over his games many times, I still can’t understand how he’s doing it. But trying to imitate this style usually doesn’t work out very well!

My favorite player to imitate is Carlsen. Of course, I’ll never be anywhere near as good as he is, but the thing that players of all levels can take from him is his fighting spirit. He never gives up and plays to win in all positions. Grit is such an important factor - it can trump a lot of other aspects of chess. If you want to improve, you really need to fight against that voice that says, “Let’s take it easy, let’s not fight today.”

BCT: What are your favorite games of Carlsen and Tal?

For Carlsen, I came across this game while researching the London System and was really impressed by it. This is like the chess equivalent of Steph Curry crossing someone over: the elegance, the sly sense of humor, always being two steps ahead. The defender keeps thinking he’s about to have things under control, only to realize he’s wildly off balance for the next move. This game gives me a really strong sense of Carlsen’s insight and wit.

[Event "Tata Steel"]
[Site "Wijk aan Zee NED"]
[Date "2016.01.22"]
[EventDate "2016.01.15"]
[Round "6"]
[Result "1-0"]
[White "Magnus Carlsen"]
[Black "Evgeny Tomashevsky"]
[ECO "A46"]
[WhiteElo "2844"]
[BlackElo "2728"]
[PlyCount "59"]

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 e6 3. Bf4 b6 4. e3 Bb7 5. h3 Be7 6. Bd3 O-O
7. O-O c5 8. c3 Nc6 9. Nbd2 d5 10. Qe2 Bd6 11. Rfe1 Ne7
12. Rad1 Ng6 13. Bxg6 hxg6 14. Bxd6 Qxd6 15. Ne5 g5 16. f4
gxf4 17. Rf1 Nd7 18. Qh5 Nf6 19. Qh4 Qd8 20. Rxf4 Ne4 21. Nxe4
Qxh4 22. Rxh4 dxe4 23. dxc5 bxc5 24. Rd7 Rab8 25. b3 a5
26. Rc7 a4 27. bxa4 Ba8 28. a5 Rb7 29. Rxc5 Ra7 30. Nc4 1-0

The following game has that unique Tal thing where everything is hanging in the air, then suddenly coalesces into a winning position in a way that’s really hard to wrap your head around. The crazy thing is that there’s so many Tal games I could have picked. For most people, this would be the best game of their career, but for Tal it’s just a day at the office.

[Event "Tallinn"]
[Site "01"]
[Date "1964.??.??"]
[EventDate "?"]
[Round "?"]
[Result "1-0"]
[White "Mikhail Tal"]
[Black "Anatoly S Lutikov"]
[ECO "C40"]
[WhiteElo "?"]
[BlackElo "?"]
[PlyCount "61"]

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d5 3.exd5 e4 4.Qe2 f5 5.d3 Nf6 6.dxe4 fxe4 7.Nc3
Bb4 8.Qb5+ c6 9.Qxb4 exf3 10.Bg5 cxd5 11.O-O-O Nc6 12.Qa3 Be6
13.Bc4 Qe7 14.Nxd5 Qxa3 15.Nc7+ Ke7 16.Rhe1 Qc5 17.Rxe6+ Kf8
18.Rxf6+ gxf6 19.Ne6+ Ke7 20.Nxc5 fxg5 21.Rd7+ Kf6 22.Rd6+ Ke7
23.Re6+ Kd8 24.Nxb7+ Kc7 25.Bd5 Nb4 26.Bxf3 Rae8 27.Nc5 Nxa2+
28.Kb1 Rxe6 29.Nxe6+ Kd7 30.Nc5+ Kd6 31.Nd3 1-0

BCT: What do you enjoy about chess?

I like that chess is completely absorbing and inexhaustible - the more you learn, the more you realize how much deeper it goes. Compared to poker, I like that in chess you “deserve” the result you get. Having played a lot of different games now, I’ve found most people prefer some luck in their games - they don’t really want to be in control of everything. But for me, poker is too far towards the luck-driven side of the spectrum and I prefer chess.

BCT: What does chess mean to you?

Coming back to chess recently, after not having spent much time on it for years, has made me realize how deep my connection with chess is. I’m still not really sure why I’m so drawn to it and sometimes I wonder what I could have accomplished if I put the same amount of effort into something more traditionally useful, but at this point I just accept that for whatever reason I have a tremendous affinity with chess. Right now I’m focused on improving as a player and teacher.

BCT: Do you have a favorite game (of yours)?

[Event "Import"]
[Site ""]
[Date "2017.05.10"]
[Round "-"]
[White "Nathan Solon"]
[Black "Richard Kenneth Delaune Jr"]
[Result "1-0"]
[WhiteElo "2317"]
[BlackElo "2364"]
[ECO "D44"]
[TimeControl "-"]
[Termination "Normal"]
[Variant "Standard"]
[Opening "Semi-Slav Defense: Botvinnik System, Lilienthal Variation"]
[Annotator ""]

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.Bg5
{Reading Shirov's game collection probably influenced me to go for the
super sharp Botvinnik Variation.}
5...dxc4 6.e4 b5 7.e5 h6 8.Bh4 g5 9.Nxg5 hxg5 10.Bxg5 Nbd7 11.g3 Qa5 12.
exf6 Ba6 13.a3 O-O-O 14.Bg2 Nc5 15.dxc5
{I think this queen sacrifice might have been a novelty at the time.
Probably not a good one, since grandmasters have chosen 15. 0-0 in
this position, but it seems to me that white's position is easier to
15...Rxd1+ 16.Rxd1 b4 $2
{It's not wise for black to open lines on the queenside, where his
king is. Simply 16...Bxc5 was better.}
17.axb4 Qxb4 18.O-O Qxc5 19.Ne4 Qf5 20.Ra1 Bb7 21.Rxa7 Bc5 22.Rfa1
{The point isn't to defend the rook, which can't be taken anyway
because of Nd6, but to introduce the threats of Ra8 and Ra5. This
forces black to go for a forcing sequence...}
22...Bxf2+ 23.Nxf2 Qxg5 24.Ra8+ Bxa8 25.Rxa8+ Kc7 26.Rxh8 Qxf6 27.Rh4 Qxb2
{The ending is probably winning for white due to his material
advantage, but it's not that easy. I managed to get there in the end.}
28...Qa1+ 29.Bf1 f5 30.Rf4 Kd6 31.h4 Qb1 32.Kg2 c5 33.Bd3 Qb7+ 34.Kh2 Qg7
35.h5 Qh6 36.Be2 Ke7 37.Kg2 Qg5 38.Rh4 Qh6 39.Rf4 Qg5 40.Nd3 c4 41.Rxc4
Qe3 42.Nf4 Kd6 43.Ra4 e5 44.Ra6+ Kc5 45.Re6 Qe4+ 46.Kh2 Kd4 47.h6 Qb7 48.
Nh3 Qb2 49.Ng1 e4 50.h7 Qb8 51.Rh6
{1-0 Black resigns.}

Chess Instruction

BCT: What is your teaching philosophy?

My approach to teaching is constantly evolving. I believe the most important qualification for a good teacher is a sincere commitment to helping each student improve. Therefore, I spend a lot of time thinking about what would be most helpful for each individual.

Recently I have been focused on making my lessons as interactive as possible. I find the student learns the most when they are actively practicing the concepts. For that purpose, I’m developing a database of instructive positions so I can give each student examples and exercises focusing on the areas of their game that are most important for where they are right now.

BCT: Where can people reach you on the internet?

BCT: Any upcoming projects?

I’m working on an app that will make it easy to search a position database by thematic tags and print out a selection of positions in a nice format for study. I just started learning to code so it may be awhile before it’s ready for use by other people.

BCT: Great! We’ll have to do a follow-up once your app is up and running!

I appreciate this conversation and the thoughtfulness in your answers, Nate. Do you have any parting advice for our readers?

For one piece of advice, I would suggest creating records of the work you do on chess. So for openings, have your repertoire stored somewhere, preferably something like chessable or chessply that allows you to drill the lines you've decided are worth memorizing. For your games, create a personal database with chessbase or similar where you enter all your tournament games. If you annotate them, even better. For tactics and any other regular training you do, use a goal tracking app to make sure you're sticking to a routine. 

This helps create a sense of progress and a way to get out of that cycle a lot of people find themselves in where they play a lot of chess but never seem to improve.

Your Turn

We will definitely catching up with Nate Solon again for future discussions.

Do you have any questions for Nate? 

Put them in the comments below and I'll either forward them to him or he'll answer them here!

Friday, April 28, 2017

Revisiting the Game Analysis Process

Photo by Ryan McGuire. CC0 1.0
It's been a couple years since I wrote my first article on analyzing your games - 4 Steps to Analyzing Your Game for Improvement.

Since writing that article, I've analyzed a few of my games as well as discussed the topic with other players, including some chess coaches and masters.

In today's article, I wanted to give some practical advice for those seeking to improve their chess through analyzing their own games and revisit and refine a few of the points I made in my original article.

If you haven't read the original article, you may want to check it out for more context as I will try not to be too redundant.

In addition to this article, I also created a video series where I played a game online, and then subjected the game to the game analysis process. You can watch the original game with my comments here.


One thing I've observed in myself is that when I'm "self-annotating" my games - the step of the process where I describe my thoughts, analysis, and feelings during the game. - is that sometimes I tend to paint my thoughts more positively then actually happened. Oversights become "misevaluations." Bad moves become "inaccuracies." Blundering material is described as "not getting enough compensation."

It is important when we want to improve to get an accurate assessment of where we are in the development process. Sometimes, this can be embarrassing because we have a certain expectation of ourselves. However, it takes humility and confidence to admit our faults and mistakes. We have to get over this hurdle though if we want to get to the next level.

In the first step of the analysis process, try to capture all of your thoughts. Sometimes, you will forget everything you thought about - that's okay! Even it is only a few moves that you are very clear about - the key is to try to figure out how you think. The fact that you forget what you were thinking of specific moves is insightful in itself!

What are Key Positions?

In the second step of the analysis process, we will try to identify a few key positions for further analysis. I describe in more detail the types of positions you will want to find in the original article, but there are a couple points I've been emphasizing more lately that I'd like to discuss with you.

The first is positions in which your evaluation during the game differed greatly from the actual evaluation of the position. For example, positions that you thought were drawn that were actually won or lost, and so forth. The reason why this is so important is that our ability to evaluate positions is one of the most important skills we can develop.

When we misjudge a chess position, it can be due to a couple of reasons:

  • We lack specific knowledge about certain positions - e.g. We don't realize that a specific endgame structure is drawn, so we push for a win only to throw away the draw.
  • Our emotions cause us to be overly optimistic or overly pessimistic of a position. We can look at the example of Kasparov's game two loss in his 1997 match against Deep Blue, where much analysis has shown that Kasparov may have resigned prematurely (although there is some debate over this).
This is one area that the chess engine can at least give us an approximation of a position's evaluation to compare to our own. I will discuss using chess engines in our game analysis next.

In the video below, I apply the first two steps of the analysis process to my game.

Using Chess Engines in Analysis

I've gone back and forth over using the chess engines in analyzing our games. I've currently settled on the view that chess engines can be very useful if used sparingly and in specific situations. I've written before about the limits of chess engines in helping us improve, but here I'll give a few tips on how you might use them to help you in game analysis.
  • You can run through the game with the chess engine on but only look at the computer's evaluation. Here, you can see where there are big jumps in the evaluation. This tell you where the big mistakes where made. If your opponent made them, you can see if you exploited them. If you are the one with the blunders, you can find out why. Some programs create an evaluation graph and you can see the peaks and valleys of the graph to identify key positions.
  • It's okay to come to your own conclusions, even if the engine disagrees with you. If after comparing your analysis and the engine's analysis, you think your move is better, then accept that. This may seem like odd advice, but the fact is that sometimes the computer engine is wrong...and even when it's not, the type of move it produces may be an exception due to the tactics of the position and may not be generally applicable in other cases. Also, it's important for you to develop your own voice when it comes to chess - although I encourage you to do this in an environment where you have access to good instruction or good books that can guide you.
  • Do not accept chess engine analysis if you do not understand it. Remember that the engine will not be with you in your tournament games. If a suggestion by the computer is too complex for your understanding or goes against what you believe are good positional principles, then let it go. You can always revisit the position at a future point when you are more experienced.
I feel a certain joy when I analyze a position on my own and then the computer confirms my thoughts! You cannot have this happen if you first turn on the engine when analyzing your games. I encourage you to do your own work first - at least a little - and then ask the computer for some assistance. 

Remember that your goal is not to find the best move in the position in your analysis. This is a by-product of your work, but your real goal is to uncover holes in your understanding or thought process so that you can correct it! The chess engine should be a tool - like a calculator - to check your own analysis and understanding of the game. 

When you find disagreements between your moves and the engine's, then do not blindly accept the engine's answer and move on. Why did your moves differ and - accepting that the engine in this particular case has the stronger move - how can you think differently (or what do you need to study) to help you find such moves in the future.

Accepting Uncertainty

One aspect of analyzing my games that I've come to appreciate more is that I won't always come up with the answers - at least right away. Sometimes we come up with positions that we just aren't sure what to do with. 

This could be in the opening. You or your opponent may play something that's out of your "book" knowledge and not listed among the various resources - e.g. databases, books, etc. You can spend some time and try to figure out the best response, but if after a reasonable effort you are still confused, it is okay to let it go for now.

Similarly, your analysis (perhaps with assistance from a chess engine) might reveal two or three viable moves in a middlegame position. It's okay if you can't decide which one is the best. Let it "simmer" for a while - maybe even months or years.

Sometimes, our future experiences and studies will cause something to "click" in our minds and what was once confusing now becomes very clear. This is the power of our mind to connect related information over time.

By learning to accept uncertainty in our conclusions, we can avoid some of the frustration that results in trying to find "the best moves" in our post-mortem analysis. All of this being said, it's important to put some effort into finding some answers, as we may encounter a similar position in the future and our efforts in the present will aid us when that happens.

Below is a video of the third and fourth steps of the game analysis process:

Time Constraints and Practicality

Finally, I wanted to share a insights that I've come to realize in studying chess that encompasses the game analysis process in general.
  • You won't often have time to do game analysis process in-depth. It's okay to focus on just a few areas in your games.
  • You may tend to spend more time analyzing your wins than your losses - resist this urge and seek out your weaknesses (if you are looking to improve).
  • Analyzing for your own improvement is different than analyzing and annotating for publication or for other people. It's okay to be sloppy or use phrases or jargon that only you understand!
  • Celebrate the insights you garner from your analysis - even the smallest of discoveries!
  • Organization is both overrated and underrated. Find a system that works for you. Check out my article on workflows for some ideas.
  • Seek answers as if you will be seeing your position in a World Championship match, but accept that you may not have all the answers right away.
  • Don't do step 3 (corrections) on the same day that you play the game...sleep on it to gain objectivity.
  • Some analysis of a game is better than no analysis. Try to find just one thing that you can improve if you're short on time.


I hope you found these reflections on the game analysis process helpful in your own game analysis. The four step process I wrote about is just a template. As I've studied chess over the last few years - squeezing time in between three children, work, and home responsibilities - I've realized that sometimes we need to take short cuts and truncate elements of the process. 

However, I've also realized the importance of analyzing my games, so I wanted to encourage you to keep up these efforts in your own training.

Until next time, I wish you Better Chess!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Ten Ideas for Improving Your Chess

Over the last few years of writing articles here at Better Chess Training as well as other places, I've run across a lot of ideas about improving at chess that I've shared with you.

In today's article, I'd like to give you a little "buffet" of training ideas to improve your chess.

Why am I doing this? Well, I think sometimes we get a little stale in our training and we need to spice things up with a different training method or different perspective. With that in mind, I hope to spark a little creativity for you by giving you a lot of ideas.

If you're a regular reader of my writing, you may recognize a few of these, but I've tried to come up with a few new ideas as well.

I hope that you might find one of these ideas interesting. If you do, let me know in the comments which one you might try out.

#1: Explain It

Steven Covey in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People recommends that you teach what you have learned in order to learn it even better. This is similar to what has come to be known as the "Feynman Technique" - where you explain the concept you are trying to learn.

This will reveal holes in you knowledge as you try to use your own words to explain complex techniques. This is one reason why I comment on games in my Youtube Channel.

You don't have to be too complicated about this. When you study chess games or your own, explain (either to yourself out loud or to others) what you are studying. For example, if you are studying a particular endgame position, pretend you are teaching a beginner and explain how the method behind the position. If you can't do it, you probably don't understand it very well yet.

#2: Speed It Up

Sometimes, if you are studying a specific opening, a useful method to gain familiarity with the various structures and maneuvers in your opening is to play through a lot of games fairly quickly. With online databases this becomes fairly easy. You can look up your opening variation, download a few dozen (or hundred) games, and just play through them. 

As you notice patterns, you might want to slow down and write them down. IM Jeremy Silman has written about how as a youngster learning chess he would grab a chess book and plow through 500 master games in a day. He noted that his brain was fried, but that he absorbed many useful patterns.

In my own training, I've done it with a couple dozen games, and then after noting a specific motif, I'll go back and look at the positions more deeply to understand it further. 

This "osmotic" absorption of chess patterns can be fun and supplement your other study. I don't recommend doing this as your primary study activity though, but it's a nice change of pace! 

#3: Slow It Down

Sometimes, I think we try to hard to get through a ton of chess material too quickly. At times, we need to take a single concept or position and try to break it down until we understand it. 

I remember this quote from Bobby Fischer: 
"As Olafsson showed me, White can win... It's hard to believe. I stayed up all night analyzing, finally convincing myself, and, incidentally, learning a lot about Rook and Pawn endings in the process."
Get lost in a single position. Analyze it until you can play it better than anyone in the world!

I did this once with a single rook and pawn endgame that I had misplayed in a game. I set it up against different chess engines and played the ending about a dozen times over a several hour session. Now when I get into a rook and pawn endgame I do so with a lot of confidence.

#4: Simplify It

Keep your training sessions simple. Don't try to learn too much or throw too many goals in one training session. For example, if you are studying openings, just focus on one variation and learn it very well. If you are studying the endgame, then focus on one type of position - e.g. king and pawn, etc.

Before you study a master game or any position, ask yourself, "What am I trying to learn here?" and "What am I trying to improve?" You may discover other things as well, but go into your session with an intention - not five or six!

#5: Memorize It

Several strong players advocate memorizing chess games. For example, Yasser Seirawan recommends the practice in his excellent book Winning Chess Brilliancies. I have tried this in the past with a couple games - the first one I memorized was Morphy's famous Opera Game - and I have found that it helped me quite a bit. 

Here are a few of the benefits I experienced:
  • I understood the reasons behind the moves quite well - I had to learn them well in order to memorize the moves.
  • It boosted my confidence to be able to play through a master game completely.
  • I think the practice in memorizing the games improved my focus and concentration.
If you try this, don't go overboard. Just try a short game (like Morphy's 17-move Opera Game) first. It helps to try to understand the reasons behind the moves. Pick a game that you enjoy playing through.

#6: Sleep on It

Don't neglect your sleep and rest. I've written about this in Better Sleep for Better Chess. Basically, you simply can't function at your best when you are fatigued. I have more tips in the article, but here are a few tips:
  • Try to get 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
  • Get to bed around the same time every night.
  • Avoid screens like laptops and phones that emit blue light before bed. Check out this article to understand why blue light is bad for sleep.
I bring this up a lot, but it's just that important!

#7: Write it Down

When doing calculations for medium or difficult tactical problems, experiment with writing down your analysis. This can be done for any training exercise you do where you have to produce a move. Write down your thoughts! Then you can go over them later:
  • What variations did you miss?
  • Did you go too deep? 
  • Did you not go deep enough?
  • Did you consider enough candidate moves?
  • Check your analysis (for tactical positions) with a chess engine.
  • If you are working from an annotated game, compare your analysis with that of the author's.
I keep a composition notebook for my analyses. I recommend writing them down physically instead of just using your computer.

I created a series of videos on Youtube based on solving tactical positions with in-depth analysis. You can use those as well as positions from Chess Tempo for this type of work.

#8: Recall It

There is a difference between recognition and recall in studying and remembering material. It is more important to recall material when tested on it than to just recognize it. This is more taxing on your memory, but will help you learn and understand the material better.

You can look at say an endgame position and say, "Oh, I've seen this before." This is recognition. 

This is less effective than being shown the position and then being asked to produce the next move or to explain the winning method.

The same goes for opening lines. When preparing for a tournament or studying your opening lines in general, it's much better to quiz yourself than it is to just play through the lines. Websites like Chessable that allow you to enter your opening lines and then quiz yourself over time are very effective in helping you remember your openings.

So in general, test yourself to see if you truly understand or remember your chess concepts or material.

#9: Schedule It

If something is important, schedule it. We put appointments for the dentist on our calendars, but we just squeeze in chess whenever we have time. However, if improving is important to us, we need to find time in our schedules - and commit to it.

I'm not telling you to neglect your other responsibilities in life. With a home, business, and family, I know about the scarcity of time in my week. However, I try to schedule time in my week where I can study chess for 30 minutes or an hour. Usually this is early in the morning before my children get up or after the kids go to bed.

Don't prioritize it over work and family responsibilities. However, ask yourself whether it's more important than that television series you were watching or that video game you were playing. I can't answer that for you, and I cannot judge your priorities. 

#10: Live It

Perhaps the most important idea I can share with you is to stay present-focused in your training. It is important not to get distracted mentally or emotionally by worries of the future or regrets of the past. We have our chess aspirations as well as those "could have been" moments in our chess. However, all that matters is the chess position in front of you at the moment.

Think of it this way. You may want to become a master and you've read that it takes 10,000 hours or ten years of hard work to do it. Despite whether you believe those specific time periods, let's just agree that it takes a lot of hard work to master chess - or almost anything worthwhile. In order to get all of that hard work in, you need to take it one moment at a time. You can't fast forward to the future. 

Being present-focused will also help reduce your stress and frustration in your progress. Why? Because once you realize that the present is the only place you can be, what is there to worry about?

Plan for the future. Learn from the past. Live in the present.

Your Turn

I hope this article gave you a few things to think about and ideas to apply to your training. 

If you had to write an 11th idea...what would it be?

Friday, April 14, 2017

How Do You Open a Chess Game?

I'm going to try something a little different this week. Partly because I'm a little tight for time with the Easter holiday coming up, but also because I wanted to start a conversation with you.

So I'll ask you a question, and based on you're answers and those of other readers, I'll write an article.

What do you play for your first move and why?

What do you play with White and why?

What do you play against 1.e4 and 2.d4 with Black and why?

I'm looking forward to your answers!

Happy Easter!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Perfect Where You Are

Years ago, I was helping a young player I had met on the internet with his chess. We had informal lessons, and we would go over master games together. This relationship continued for about three months, and we met weekly.

I started to make an odd observation - my young friend never played any rated games. However, every week, he would ask me some version of the question, "What strength do you think I am?"

My answer was the same: "Play some rated games and find out."

He kept complaining about not "being ready." Despite my encouragement, he never made the leap. We stopped meeting together, due to some mutual changes in our schedule. A couple months later, he wrote to me. I no longer have the original message, but here was the paraphrased message:
Thank you for our time together. I really appreciate it. I have started taking lessons with a grandmaster, who has been very helpful. Although I do not feel I am ready to play rated games, he assures me that I am a 'Class B' player. That would make me as strong as you! I hope you are doing well, etc. etc.
Well, I was happy for my friend (whom I will refer to as Joe for the rest of the article) and I wished him well, but I looked him up on the chess server and again noticed that he had not played any rated games!

What is the point of me telling you this story? Well, there are a few lessons here which I will share.

Worrying about Ratings

Ratings are important...and not important. Ratings are a measure of performance. However, in and of themselves, they only tell us so much. There are general conclusions we might be able to conclude. For example, the training needs of someone rated USCF 2000 are a lot different than someone rated USCF 1000. However, in between there is a lot of variance with regard to the needs of players.

When Joe asked me what I thought his rating was, I think he was looking for validation. The problem is that unless you actually play rated games, you cannot judge a person's ratings, because of performance factors.

For example, he might have master level knowledge of openings, middlegame, and endgame, but if he gets really nervous or impulsive during actual competition, his performance might be a lot lower than his knowledge level.

Ratings are descriptive in nature. They are a result of good results that are a manifestation of your knowledge and skills in the opening, middlegame, and endgame as well as performance areas such as attention, endurance, composure, and clock management. Ultimately, your rating should follow your overall strength.

However, your rating is not prescriptive in nature. Your rating does not tell me about what your needs are to improve. Two players may have the exact same ratings, but may have very different strengths and weaknesses. Here are just a few areas where the players may have differing levels even with the same rating:

  • Opening repertoire development
  • Calculation skill
  • Clock management
  • Composure - staying calm under pressure
  • Playing frequency
  • Endgame skill
  • Planning
The point is that worrying about your rating doesn't have much of a practical purpose. However, it may have a psychological purpose to players - as I believe was the case with Joe.

Being Honest with Yourself

I recently had an unpleasant experience at a recent tournament. I had won in the first three rounds of the tournament and was tied for first place going into the final two rounds. However, I lost the last two games and finished 11th out of 56. This is not a bad result, but I was very disappointed in myself. Why? Because I was the highest rated player in my section and the first seed in the tournament and I expected to win.

After a day or so, I was able to distance myself emotionally from the result and about to look at my games and my performance. I found the following areas that need additional improvement - at least relative to my other skills:
  • Opening repertoire - there were some clear holes in my understanding in several of my openings systems.
  • Avoiding pawn structure weaknesses around my king - although this seems basic, I overvalued the dynamic nature of pawn structure weaknesses. Interestingly, this is something my coach had pointed out.
  • Endurance/Energy management - After 10 hours of chess on day one of the tournament, I was "spent" on day two, and the quality of my chess moves went down dramatically.
There were a few areas of strength as well! 
  • Endgame play - in two games where we reached clear endgames, I outplayed my opponents to win.
  • Composure/Fighting back in bad positions - In all three of my victories, I had even or worse positions coming out of the opening. However, I stayed tough and active in defense.
Here is the point. I couldn't have discovered these things about my game if I didn't play in the tournament. The "payment" for these insights was the emotional roller coaster of victory and defeat. Your chess strength can't exist in a vacuum. There is no such thing as a "closet Grandmaster."

Perfect Where You Are

"At what point in a flower's life, from seed to full bloom, has it reached perfection?"
~Thomas Sterner, The Practicing Mind

So what is the solution? I think it's the nonjudgmental acceptance of where you are. Realize that you have strengths and weaknesses in your chess. Fortunately, for the most part you can improve your weaknesses! 

The mistake that Joe made and one I have made (and probably will make) is the desire for validation from other people. He didn't get it from me, so he found a grandmaster who was able to give it to him. 

Instead, embrace the totality of your chess skill. The more you can accept where you are and realize that it truly is the only place you can be, the more you can actually move towards improvement.

Why? We need to be honest about our needs before we will seek out the knowledge and improve it. I remember taking a chess lesson about 15 years ago and my instructor telling me that the books I was studying were too advanced for me. I was offended, and my refusal to seek out appropriate material probably hindered my development. Fortunately, I have gotten over that weakness but many people do not.

Remember that you are perfect where you are. The only validation you need is that which you give yourself. Accept your strengths and your areas that need improvement. Don't worry about your ratings, and don't fear playing rated games against strong players. 

Do these things and continue your study and training of our beautiful game, and you'll find yourself on the path to better chess.

Your Turn

Do you ever worry about your ratings? 

Have you ever had a "blind spot" that hindered you from taking the steps you needed to improve?

Share your thoughts in the comments.


Friday, March 31, 2017

Capablanca vs. Tartakower, New York 1924

Dear readers,

I apologize as I don't have an article ready for you today. I have a big chess tournament coming up this weekend - the Marchand Open and I didn't prepare an article beforehand. 

I will return to my weekly schedule next week, and until then, please enjoy this video I created this week.

Friday, March 24, 2017

How to Prepare for a Big Chess Tournament

"The good fighters of old put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy." ~Sun Tzu
Your humble author (left) in a tournament game.
Photographer: M. McDuffie
We play chess fairly often. There are online games and correspondence games. Over-the-board, we have various tournaments, leagues, and casual play. Every once in a while, though, we have a BIG tournament.  This could be a scholastic championship, your club championship, or a large prize tournament. It's something with a little more significance than your other chess play.

In this article, we will discuss some practical and effective ways to prepare for these tournaments. These methods are useful for chess play in general, but are especially useful when preparing for a tournament that is very important to you.


I've written several times about the importance of sleep and chess improvement. Although sleep is important all the time, in multiple-round tournaments over several days it is vital. With long time controls and two or three rounds in a single day, you can be in a single match for four or five hours and be playing chess for up to ten hours! 

Read Better Sleep for Better Chess for more details, but here are some of the benefits of proper sleep.
  • Increased cognitive functioning.
  • Increased vigilance - e.g. you won't miss as much.
  • Increased attention.
Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep at night and youngsters may need more. This could be the most important preparation for your tournament (assuming you maintain your other chess training).

Tactics Training

I also recommend increased tactical training. International Master Nazi Paikidze noted that she often solved 50-100 tactical problems in preparing for her victorious run at the 2016 U.S. Women's Championship. You don't need to solve as many as Ms. Paikidze, but the idea is to sharpen your tactical sword

I recommend a mix of tactics training, including your traditional tactical problems that you see on Chess Tempo or Chessity, as well checkmate problems and endgame studies to help develop your calculation and visualization skills.

If you already study a lot of tactics, you may not have to increase your volume. For example, if you are doing tactics for an hour a day or more, it may be best to just maintain that and work on some of the other training activities I will mention.


Exercise is good for your body and your mind.
Long tournaments are not just a test of your chess skill, but also a test of your stamina and endurance. Physical activity is important to maintaining your mental effort during the long matches and days. Most of the world champions (particularly the more recent ones) often had very rigorous physical training. Bobby Fischer used to swim many laps underwater to increase his body's ability to utilize oxygen efficiently.

Although any physical activity is better than none, I recommend you emphasize two specific areas in your exercise. 

First, cardiovascular endurance is very important for oxygen utilization by the brain (and body). Basically, any activity that gets your huffing and puffing and sweating will be effective. It could be traditional cardiovascular exercise like running and swimming or training methods such as kettlebells or Crossfit that include a strength component to training the heart and lungs. One Filipino martial arts expert used to run a lot but then he realized he got the same benefits and had more from playing basketball with his boys!

Second, strengthening the core muscles around the lower back and abdominals is important. The reason is that we will be sitting at the board for a long time, and our ability to maintain our posture and be comfortable will keep us from getting distracted. Exercises that strengthen your core include squats, crunches, and planks.

If you are not familiar with exercise, please start slow and with short sessions. Having a physical injury is not helpful for chess, so work within your experience and skill level. 

Also remember that exercise won't make you a grandmaster (at least not overnight), but it will help your energy levels during the fourth and fifth hours of a tournament match.

Your Openings

Reviewing your openings is an essential aspect for tournament preparation. This can be overdone, so I'll just give you a few guidelines.
  • Review lines within your opening repertoire. There are several good tools for assisting in this, including Chessable and Chess Position Trainer. You can read my review of Chessable.
  • As most of my readers are amateurs, I recommend focusing on one response to each of the major openings. For example, you do not need to learn both the French and the Sicilian against 1.e4. Pick one and focus on it and then do this for every major junction in your opening repertoire.
  • Once you are within a month or two of the tournament, I do not recommend learning a totally new system to play in the tournament. Your experience within the systems of your repertoire are as important as the specific lines you play. So play what you know!
  • My only exception to the previous point is if you have a glaring hole in your repertoire. For example, if you don't have a system you are confident in against either 1.e4 or 1.d4, then I would suggest picking one and then studying it, because most likely you will face it in one of your matches.
Being confident with your opening repertoire will help you greatly in the tournament. Tournament time is not time to experiment with new openings. 

Playing with a Purpose

Before the big event, you will probably have several opportunities to play either over-the-board or online. Use this time to work on specific parts of your game that may need some practice.

It is important to review your recent games. I've written several articles about this include the following:
You should start to notice a few habits that you might want to improve in future games. I recommend picking one or two of these aspects and make them practice objectives for your non-tournament games.

Here is the process I use:

  • Identify the objectives to focus on. I write these down on an index card, and usually have no more than one or two.
  • Play the game, being mindful of these objectives during my play.
  • After the game, review my progress and success in accomplishing the objectives.

For example, I recently had noticed that I was playing passively in the endgame, particularly with my rook. In the last several games, one of my objectives was to have "Active pieces in the endgame." The following game is a demonstration of that habit I have been developing (from a recent tournament).

Mental and Emotional Training

The final area that you might want to include in your tournament preparation is some type of mental and emotional training. This involves learning to control your emotions as well as learning to be present in your games. Here are a few of the chess benefits of training your mind and emotions:
  • Focus and attention during deep calculation
  • Resilience when under pressure
  • Bouncing back from setbacks
How does one train one's mind and emotions? There are many methods and I am not an expert, but here are a few methods I have used to improve myself in this area.
  • Meditation: It doesn't have to be complicated. I use Headspace as well as general breath awareness meditation.
  • Deep breathing: This is related but also separate from meditation. Learning to breath well can help you keep calm and provide your body and mind with oxygen. This is especially helpful during tense chess positions!
  • Visualization: I visualize myself playing confidently and calmly. I play some classical music in the background and imagine myself at the board playing against a tough opponent. There is a lot of information out there on visualization but again, you don't have to make it complicated. See yourself and the qualities you want to have when you are playing. A few minutes a day can do a lot!
  • Journaling: I have journaled for years, and I find it very helpful in terms of getting thoughts out of my head and onto paper (or more recently, onto the computer). If you try this, I would recommend writing down your goals and ambitions surrounding the big event, and also your fears and worries about it. When you see it written in front of you, you can start to think rationally about it and see that a lot of your fears and worries are either without warrant, or something you can overcome with preparation.
If you are more interested in mental training and sports psychology, I would recommend checking out the books of Bob Rotella and anything by psychologist Michael Gervais.

Preparing for Success

Hopefully, your chess training has been consistent and steady for a long time before your big events. A solid foundation of chess knowledge and practice is essential for success. These tips are not meant to replace the hours spent studying and practicing and can't make up for neglecting that training.

However, tournament chess is different than playing online or casual games with your friends. The amount of focus and effort your opponent will be exerting will be much higher and you need to be ready to meet the challenge. Similarly, the pressure you put on yourself will be greater. More intense preparation is often helpful to bridge the gap from your everyday chess play and the rigors of tournament play.

Follow these tips and you'll find yourself in the best place mentally, physically, and emotionally to tackle the challenges of your next big tournament!

Good luck!

Your Turn

How do you prepare for tournaments?

Do you have a big tournament coming up?

Share in the comments!

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Three Levels of Chess Training Strategy

"Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war and then seek to win."
-Sun Tzu
What are your goals in chess?

Do you have a plan for your chess improvement?

Do your chess training activities align with your goals?

It's okay if you don't have answers for these questions. In this article, we're going to discuss planning your training strategy on three different levels:

  • Vision
  • Strategy
  • Tactics
Here on Better Chess Training, I try to address all three levels. Let's discuss each one in more detail and what you can do to apply these concepts to improve your chess.


The most important level is your vision. What are your aspirations for chess as a player? Do you want to mainly enjoy the game with your family and friends? Do you want to play in tournaments and progress up the ratings ladder? Do you want to be a national champion?

Your answer and perhaps more importantly your belief in this vision is the foundation for the strategy and tactics that you employ.

For example, I have a vision of becoming a USCF rated master (and perhaps a little better) - somewhere around USCF 2300. Although I feel this is quite challenging, I think over time it is definitely possible with a lot of the right work and perseverance. However, I make no delusions of ever becoming a grandmaster. 

This is quite different than the vision of a friend of mine. He enjoys keeping up with the current world class chess tournaments on the internet and playing chess with his grandchildren. His vision is to be able to be a good sparring partner for his grandson and be able to understand at least a little of what is happening between the world's elite players.

We both would like to improve our current level of chess knowledge and skill, but our differing visions may set us on slightly different paths in terms of the strategy and tactics.

So what are your goals in chess? What is your vision? Feel free to share in the comments because I'd love to read them (and by knowing them I might be able to write more helpful articles).

Once you have a clear vision for your chess, you can look at strategies to achieve your vision.


Of course, we know what strategy is in relation to our chess games. It involves looking at the pros and cons of our position with the ultimate vision of checkmating our opponent. Your strategy in training is similar.

Strategy is your plan on how you will get better at chess (or achieve your vision). A good strategy (or strategies) takes into account your current strengths and weaknesses as well as your life's circumstances. 

Let's use myself and my friend as examples.

My strategy for improvement takes into account a few things:
  • Understanding what it takes to become a USCF master
  • Assessing my current level of understanding and skill in various areas of chess
  • Accounting for my responsibilities in my life that take time and energy - e.g. work, family, and home
  • Taking into account the financial resources I can allocate towards chess
In order to assist me in developing my training strategy, I am now working with a coach - GM Nigel Davies. I wrote about the role a coach can play in Should You Hire a Chess Coach? Besides teaching chess, we also discuss our training on a strategic level based on what he is seeing in my games. Here are just a few examples of strategy based on the factors above and what he has seen in my games:
  • We have simplified my opening repertoire to take into account both my skill level and the amount of time I can spend studying openings.
  • Noting an underdevelopment in certain aspects of my positional knowledge, we focus on these specifically during lessons and fill in gaps with the Tiger Chess program.
  • Although I think daily tactical training is essential for players, we noted that this was a strength, so I spend a little less time on it in order to focus on other areas of chess study. However, I still do my tactics training daily.
Besides these training elements, I've also introduced a few other strategic elements into my personal training program:
  • I've become more consistent with meditation and practicing mindfulness. I use simple breath awareness meditation mainly using Headspace. This has helped me to manage my energy better as well as increased my focus, which is important in chess and life.
  • I try to get at least seven hours of sleep at night. I track my sleep and performance on tactics, and there is a definite correlation between the hours of sleep and my results. As I write in my article on sleep, there is much scientific evidence supporting the importance of sleep for cognitive performance.
  • I tend to do things in a disorganized fashion. In order to combat this in my life and in my chess training, I have started using organization tools more effectively, including scheduling my training in my daily calendar and using Evernote for work, home, and chess.
In the example of my friend, his strategy for improvement is a little different. He's retired, so time isn't as big of an issue. Also, he told me that he wants chess to be fun. He's spent his whole career working hard, so he doesn't want to do anything that will feel like "work." Instead of arguing with him on the definition of work and chess - I enjoy all of my chess "work" - I decided to go with him on his thoughts and helped put just a tiny bit of strategy into his chess "enjoyment."

Here are a few things that he does regularly:
  • He watches videos on Youtube including my channel and a few others. Mainly, he enjoys watching videos that have commentary on games.
  • He plays his grandson in chess regularly. He also looks at his games regularly after he plays them, doing a super quick version of my Seven Questions. I don't think he records the games, so he just goes over them for 15-20 minutes after playing them from what he can remember. 
  • He reads the chess books that his grandson reads, and tries to solve all of the chess puzzles.
His strategy for improvement is quite different then mine, but help him to achieve the vision he has for himself. He has gotten improved gradually and so has his grandson!

So when reflecting on your own strategy, make sure that your strategies for improvement align with your vision. Also, you want to make sure your strategies align with your life circumstances. If your strategy for improvement account for these factors, then you're on the right track!

These strategies are what we need to do to reach our vision. Executing them is what tactics is all about.


Vision is what you want to accomplish. Strategy is plan to get there. Tactics is the execution of that plan.

There are several objectives that we try to accomplish through tactics:

  • We want our training to be effective - e.g. to accomplish what we set out to do.
  • We want our training to be efficient - e.g. we want to maximize our learning or training within the time we have.
Here we can see the importance of strategy. You can have the most effective and efficient method of training your openings, but if you lose most of your games due to blunders and you don't train your tactics sufficiently, you will likely not improve very much.

I discuss this topic in more detail in a two-part series Principles of Effective Training (Part 1 and Part 2). Here I will just highlight a few points and how they relate to tactics.
  • Appropriate material is important for effective training. For example, a chess grandmaster probably doesn't need to spend much time solving mates-in-one problems. Similarly, a beginner probably doesn't need to study much opening theory.
  • Having clear objectives is critical because otherwise it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of training. 
  • Have feedback loops helps us measure whether or not we accomplished the objectives and gives us a way to adjust our tactics to make our training more effective.
  • Regular review ensures that our training and learning stays in our memories.
With regard to efficiency, these principles are also relevant. 
  • If your study or training methods are too hard, you will need to do it again when you are strong enough to understand or tackle it. If your methods are too easy, you will not improve very much or very quickly.
  • Without clear objectives, you may improve "accidentally" but the path might be windy and long as opposed to straight and direct.
  • Proper feedback loops will help you understand where you need to make adjustments in our training.
  • Regular review will keep you from forgetting and having to relearn the material, which would be inefficient.
You can learn more specific methods and tactics on Better Chess Training and in some of my other writing. Here are a few articles that talk about various training methods:

Some activities may belong to both strategy and tactics. For example, for me getting proper sleep was both a strategy to better health and thus more longevity in chess as well as a tactic, as I noticed my training was not as effective on days that I did not get much sleep. 

Don't worry too much about classifying whether an element of your training is part of your strategy or tactics. These are just labels to help you understand your thought process behind your planning, not the goal themselves.

Evolving Strategies

Planning your chess training isn't a one time deal. Over time, as you encounter different methods and different viewpoints, your vision, strategy, and tactics may shift. 

Your vision might change due to a change in circumstance. For example, the vision of my chess changed quite a bit from the ambitious 20-year-old who had plenty of time to study and train to a 40-something-year-old father and businessman who has 1-2 hours a day at most for chess.

Your strategy will change as you grow in strength in different areas of chess. This is natural and necessary. Chess is too complex of a game to use a single strategy to improve throughout your chess career. Embrace the change and have fun with it.

Finally, tactics will probably change most frequently as advances in chess software and our understanding of training grow. Similarly, your experience with specific tactics will change as you find what works for you. Although there are certain principles of learning and training that are fairly universal, the specific way you manifest those principles might be different for you than another player - even if you are of similar strengths.

My final advice is that besides your own analysis and assessment of your situation through these three levels, seeking the help or feedback from a coach or even other players is often helpful. They can objective as they are not emotionally attached to the outcome as you might be. They might be able to point things out that you may not see because of your own personal biases.

Your Turn

Have you considered these three levels of planning in your own chess improvement? 

Is there one level that perhaps you were focused on more than the others?

Is there one level that you have neglected? What can you do to change that situation?

Let me know in the comments. I'd love to have a conversation with you about it.