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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.

Sleep


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


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!

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.

Vision


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.

Strategy


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.

Tactics


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.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Submit Your Games for Game of the Month

Starting this month, I'll be taking submissions for instructive game of the month.

I'm looking for instructive games. They can be short games or long games. They can be brilliant attacks or defensive struggles. If you learned something from the game, then it was instructive.

At the end of the month, I will select the most instructive game and create a video on the Better Chess Training Youtube Channel. I might also include excerpts from other games that did not get selected.

The only requirement is that you be a subscriber to the Better Chess Training Youtube Channel and that your game be in pgn format. If I cannot read the notation with SCID, then it won't be considered.

Here is my video invitation:




Here is the link to the submission form (it is a Google form).

Good luck and I hope this can become a regular feature!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Some Endgame Training Resources

Agreeing to draws in the middlegame, equal or otherwise, deprives you of the opportunity to practice playing endgames, and the endgame is probably where you need the most practice. ~  Pal Benko
Pal Benko, Endgame Expert, in 1964.
Photo: Broers, F.N. CC-SA 3.0
Lately, I've been very interested in getting better at the endgame. This is for several reasons. First, I'm getting older and perhaps a little wiser, but it could just be that my memory is getting worse and it's easier to remember positions with less pieces on the board. Secondly, my children are starting to play and it's the easiest place to start to teach them. Finally, many of the masters whose games I admire - Capablanca, Smyslov, Rubinstein, and Karpov - were absolute masters of the endgame.

In the past, I've recommended several good books to get you started on the endgame, including Jeremy Silman's Complete Endgame Course and Jesus de la Villa's 100 Endgames You Must Know. I would add to this Nigel Davies' Tiger Chess Program if you enjoy watching chess videos and a systematic study program.

In this article, I just want to highlight a couple other resources that I use in my endgame study and practice.

Nalimov Endgame Tablebases Online


Screenshot
This is actually a site for computer programming, but it has a very useful page for 6-man endgame tablebases. You can copy your FEN positions and paste them and then the site tells you whether it is a win, loss, or draw for every single possible move. 

I recommend you use this in conjunction for learning specific endgame methods, for example, specific rook and pawn endgames like the Lucena or Philidor Positions.

It is important to know the concepts and methods first before you use this tool. This is similar to using computer chess engines to analyze your chess. If you do not have a clue about the underlying ideas behind the moves, it will do more harm than good.

The way I use it is when I'm practicing endgame positions against the computer or a friend. If I get stuck on the winning method, I might first go back to the book or video where I learned it, but then I'll plug the specific position into the tablebases and see what the best moves are. 

I don't want to be redundant but I want to make one last emphasis that this is a tool to supplement actually learning how to play specific positions.

ChessVideos.TV Endgame Simulations

Screenshot
Chessvideos.tv has a simple endgame simulator that includes a few theoretical endgame positions including king and pawn, rook endgames, and famous endgames. The positions are loaded and you play against a chess engine.

The interface is very simple and there's no way to save the moves or interact with them any other way. However, I look at this site as a way you can reinforce your technique in these simple endgames. This is something I often set up in SCID to play against the chess engine. 

The nice thing about doing them on this site though is that it will automatically set up the pieces randomly (within the parameters of the specific endgame of course), so you can practice your technique efficiently. 

With SCID, I would need to set up the board myself with the pieces in different positions. With chessvideos.tv's simulator I can just click "start over" and the board is set up with the pieces in different positions then the last time.

This is a nice little tool that I use occasionally when I'm relaxing and just want to play through some rook and pawn endgame positions. Again, it's important to learn the technique from a book or video first. 


Chess.com's Endgame Drills and Fundamentals


Chess.com has a lot of great resources and is a great place to play chess. In the last year or so, they've added a lot of new learning resources including their Endgame Fundamentals and Endgame Practice drills.

These are similar to setting up positions on SCID and playing against the engine, but these positions are specifically chosen as a progression from simple to more complex. 

The nice thing that seperates this chess.com drills from "doing it yourself" is that the computer engine gives you helpful feedback on the quality of your moves (other than the numerical evaluation) as well as the ability to analyze and download the pgn notation of your drill. 

Access to the first few drills in each section is free, and access to the rest can be purchased through monthly or annual subscription. 

SCID


This isn't really an endgame resource, but instead a platform in which you can practice your endgames. Using positions I gather from the books mentioned above or from the downloadable pgn's provided through Tiger Chess, I set up the positions that are best learned through practice (such as the Philidor Position and its variations) as opposed to just memorization.

I've written about SCID before, and I use it for a lot of my chess study and game storage. I have created a special endgame database with all of my practice positions, and I'll go over them and practice against the engine. 

Practice Makes Perfect


I want to conclude the article with a pleasant endgame breakthrough I made. I recently studied king, bishop, and two pawns versus bishop (of the same color) and king in Tiger Chess. I was having the hardest time trying to figure out. 

I was making simple mistakes such as the following:

However, after using some of the tools mentioned above, I was able to figure it out. I re-watched the videos in Tiger Chess, then analyzed my attempts using the Nalimov Tablebases, and final practiced it several times with SCID. Here is the latest, with the strong chess engine Stockfish 7 as my opponent.


I hope you found some of these resources helpful for your endgame training. Like many parts of chess, continued practice will help increase your understanding. This is especially important in endgames because your knowledge and understanding of certain endgame positions will help you with move selection and evaluations in the middlegame (and even the opening). Also, during tournaments, you may be running low on time and your knowledge of a winning method may be the difference between a win and a loss.

Your Turn

Are there any other endgame training resources I didn't mention that you use?

Which of the resources I mention will you try this week?

Do you like the endgame? Or is it a "necessary evil?"

Friday, March 3, 2017

Should You Hire a Chess Coach?

"The test of a good coach is that when they leave, others will carry on successfully."  
-Author Unknown
Chess coaches can be very beneficial for your chess improvement. I've worked with a few over the years and am currently working with one. In this article, I'll list a few of the benefits of coaching, We'll also discuss some ideas on how to best work with a coach. Finally, I will give a few tips on what to look for in a coach.

The Benefits of Working with a Coach

There are I believe two broad ways that a coach can help you with your chess. They can help you increase or correct your knowledge. They can also help you develop good training and thinking habits. 

One of the main reasons players seek out a coach is to help them increase their chess knowledge. This could include the following topics:
  • Rules of thumb or general principles (for all phases of the game)
  • Developing an opening repertoire or specific openings.
  • Understanding and learning endgames.
  • Strategic elements such as pawn structure, good and bad bishops, etc.
Although you can learn much of this knowledge from books, having a chess coach who could assess what knowledge is most important to you at your stage of development can accelerate your learning process. A good coach can also point out appropriate supplemental learning material such as books and videos.

The second main benefit that a coach can provide is helping you develop good training and thinking habits. Examples of this include the following:
  • Different types of thinking processes depending on the nature of the position - e.g. tactical versus positional, middlegame vs. endgame.
  • How to determine the most important aspects of specific positions.
  • Pointing out bad habits or misconceptions you may have.
  • Controlling your emotions and stress during tournament games.
I think this aspect of coaching is highly underestimated and vitally important, especially as your skill level grows. This might also include activities such as tournament preparation.

Qualities of a Good Coach

Although coaches come in many varieties of personality, approaches, and areas of expertise, I think there are a few qualities that almost every good coach should exhibit.

First, I think the coach needs to be a good communicator. This includes being able to speak the same language as the student very well, but also to be able to present concepts in a way that is appropriate for the level of the student. For example, communicating chess concepts to a 12-year-old is much different than teaching the same concept to a 40-year-old.

I think coaches should be professional. I'm not to say they shouldn't be friendly and personable - my current coach certainly is - but they need to treat the time that you pay for the lesson professionally. For example, I took piano lessons for a short time from a teacher who was friendly, but ended up spending half the lessons talking about his piano playing career - this is not professional. I want to be careful here, because I do think some banter and tangential conversations are healthy and normal in a coaching relationship, but remember that you are paying for your coach's time and expertise. 

A coach should be strong enough to teach you what you need to know at your level. I hesitate to provide minimum ratings that you should look for in a coach, because I think the communication skill and ability to relay the appropriate information is more important than absolute strength. I know some very strong players that I've taken lessons from that I would not consider great coaches - or at least not a fit for my needs. Similarly, I've analyzed and discussed chess with players around my same level that I've learned a lot from (although these were post-mortem analysis or casual conversations). These players, although not masters, were great communicators and I feel could teach beginning or weaker players very well. The general principle though is that the stronger you get, the stronger your coach should be. 

Working with a Coach

Working with a chess coach is a two-way relationship. As a student, there are a few responsibilities that you have as well as ways to maximize the benefits of working with a chess coach.

First, I think you should be clear about your goals and ambitions in chess. This will be helpful for your coach to determine what material and approach he or she can take. For example, if you are a full time professional who wants to enjoy the game more by getting a little better and being able to understand the game, your coach's approach would be a bit different than if you were an up-and-coming junior hoping to play in your country's national scholastic championship. 

Second, I encourage you to be an active participant in lessons. If you do not understand something your coach is teaching, you should ask him to further explain the concept. Similarly, if there is an aspect of your game that you think needs more attention, bring this up before your lessons, so your coach can prepare the appropriate material for you.

Finally, it is important to understand that the coach is a supplement to your overall training and study plan for chess improvement. Like a physical trainer, your coach can guide and teach you, but you are the one who must do the work - the push-ups and squats in terms of exercise - to improve yourself. You need to go over your games, practice your tactics, and study between lessons. This is assuming that you don't have very frequent lessons. I read of a grandmaster whose early training consisted of playing in local tournaments several times per week and then meeting with three different coaches (one for opening, middlegame, and endgame) on the other days. However, most of my readers do not have this luxury.

A Personal Coaching Experience

I wanted to share a recent insight from my own experience with my coach, GM Nigel Davies (you can read my interview with him). Our lessons mainly revolve around analyzing my recent tournament games. I am also a member to his Tiger Chess program, which gives me the foundation in chess knowledge that is reinforced and supplemented by my private lessons with him.

Here are a couple recent positions we studied from my games as well as a breakthrough insight I gained from it.

In this first game, I have a nice pawn wedge on e5. Instead of supporting this by preparing an f2-f4 pawn lever, I decide to push forward with g4, much to Nigel's dismay.


In a game played a week after the first example, I again have a wayward pawn push. I was actually quite happy to notice this as it is now something I can become aware of and work to change.


There are a few points to these examples worth noting:

  • Because of Nigel's experience, he was able to explain not only that my moves were not great, but why and how to look at the position in the future to determine the proper plan.
  • We discussed that the difference was not only between the quality of the move - e.g. good and not-so-good - but also the type of resulting position and the difference in thinking. For example, the g5 move in the Martinez game would be a candidate, but he would require much more "proof" in terms of concrete analysis in order to choose this move over the more positionally based plan to prepare f2-f4 with Nh2. 
  • We were able to connect these moves not only from these two games, but from other games and observations from previous lessons. For example, I seem to overvalue the initiative and dynamic play while undervaluing strategic elements such as pawn structure. Both are important, but Nigel noted that they need to be in the right balance.
  • These insights are building upon the material I am learning in the Tiger Chess curriculum with regard to pawn structure and pawn levers. I should note that this type of "building upon a foundation" doesn't have to necessarily come from a coach's own material. For example, several of the masters I have interviewed require their students to study specific books as a foundation for further instruction.

Finally, it is these types of insights I am hunting for. Things that I could not see on my own, and how to change my bad habits. This is perhaps one of the biggest things a coach can provide - objectivity.

As you can hopefully tell, I enjoy my coaching relationship with GM Nigel Davies. That being said, he would be the first to admit that he is not the coach for everyone. That brings me to the final area we will discuss on this topic.

Choosing a Coach

If you think a coach might be for you, here are a few suggestions on how to go about finding and choosing a coach.
  • Talk to your chess friends who have coaches and ask for a recommendation. Make sure to ask your friends about some of the aspects discussed in this article - how does your coach conduct lessons? Is he a good communicator? 
  • Check out the interviews I have conducted. Many of my interviewees, besides being masters, also provide coaching services. Although a short interview won't tell you everything, it might give you some insight into the coach's personality and a potential fit for you.
  • Consider your financial situation. Different coaches charge differently for their services. Although many provide excellent value for the price, it is important to be able to afford coaching for several sessions, as I think results will come over time after working with a coach for a while - e.g. coaches are not miracle workers.
  • If private lessons are not affordable, consider looking at subscription services that provide a curriculum for instruction. Although not personalized, they can provide you access to a teacher's instruction and insights at a more afforable rate. I like Tiger Chess of course, but I also think highly of GM Mesgen Amanov's Improve Your Chess program (and you can read my interview with GM Amanov here).
  • Remember that much of the progress you make in chess will be from your own training and study, so besides considering a coach, make sure you are doing your own work to improve.

Conclusion

I believe that a chess coach can be a great addition to your chess improvement program. I think it is important to know what you want from chess and know what to look for in a good coach. I hope this article will help in that area.

If for some reason a coach doesn't work in your current situation, remember that you can make a lot of progress through your own effort - and your own effort will be required whether or not you work with a coach. I provide a lot of ideas here on Better Chess Training to improve yourself and there are many good books that will help you on that journey as well.

Finally, I want to thank GM Nigel Davies as well as the coaches I have worked with in the past. I'm not finished with my chess improvement journey, but the journey so far has been very enjoyable in part because of the coaches that have helped me to understand this beautiful game of ours.

Your Turn

Tell me about your experiences with coaches? 

What other qualities do you look for in a chess coach?


Friday, February 24, 2017

Are You Studying Too Much Chess?

The Case of a Young Chess Blogger


Photographer: AJ Montpetit. CC0 1.0
Several years ago, I remember reading a chess blog of a young man who was excited about an opportunity to study chess for 7-8 hours a day. At the time, I thought that was neat (although lamenting that I did not have that kind of time with a family and work).

However, as I progress steadily in my own chess journey, I realize that perhaps the extra time to train may not have been a blessing after all.

The young man eventually got a job and nearly altogether quit chess, with little improvement to show from his summer of full time chess study.

This article is not about judging or criticizing those of you who have a lot of time to study chess. Instead, I want to discuss the benefits of setting upper bounds or limits to your chess study and play.

Some of the concepts I discuss in this article were inspired by an article by James Clear called Do Things You Can Sustain. Mr. Clear approaches the concept from the viewpoint of sustainability of growth, which I agree with, and I'll be also adding a few other benefits.

Sustainability


The main point that James Clear makes in his article is that there is a sweet spot for practice and improvement. Too little effort and time and you're basically being lazy - e.g. assuming you're not just too busy to study chess. Too much effort and you'll burn out. 

I actually set limits to my play and study partly for these reasons. Part of it is a practical matter of fitting it in with a family of three young children and work. Part of it is a strategic decision.

I try to play competitively over-the-board (OTB) about once a month or so. This frequency allows me time to analyze my games on my own as well as with my coach. Also, it helps me maintain and foster my relationships with my wife and children, as I use the other weekends to spend with them. 

Playing more often would probably make this a little tougher. If I played less frequently, I think I would come into each tournament somewhat rusty as playing online and studying isn't quite the same.

Prioritization


When you set limits to your studying and playing, it also forces you to pick and choose the most important activities. When I was in college and first started playing competitive chess. I studied chess books, my Chess Life magazine, as well as playing hours and hours of blitz chess on the Internet Chess Club. Although I improved, I think a lot of this was due to the fact that I was a beginner.

However, as I got a job, got married, and had children, I realized that I couldn't spend 4+ hours a day on chess. I had to prioritize my study and training time. I started to emphasize analyzing my losses as well as reducing my blitz play. Surprisingly, my improvement accelerated!

I think this is partly because I focused in on the areas that were most important for improving my play at the time. Of course, I needed to work on all parts of my game, but the most relevant materials within those areas yielded good dividends.

For example, instead of studying random master games - which was still helpful - I started to focus on games within my opening repertoire when possible. This helped me to learn patterns and variations that I would be more likely to see in my own play. Also, when I encountered these patterns in my own play, I was able to integrate my personal experience with what I was learning, which compounded the learning effect.

Attention


One of the other benefits of setting limits is attention. Your capability to attend to tasks - especially mental energy consuming tasks such as chess study - is limited. Have you ever played a long four or five hour chess match and then felt that your brain was fried? If not, then perhaps you weren't thinking hard enough (or your endurance is just greater than mine).

When we are studying chess for a long time at a stretch, or like our friend in the beginning of the article, for many hours in a day, we get tired. When our minds fatigue, we start to ignore or miss small details. This effects both our performance and our ability to retain knowledge.

A few months ago, my tactics routine consisted of doing three rounds of tactics on Chessity. This usually averaged out to around 30 tactical problems. Because I measure my progress, I noticed that I was plateauing and that often the performance on the 2nd and 3rd rounds was not as good as the first.

I decided to try something. I started to only do one round of tactics on Chessity - so usually 9-12 problems. This did a couple things. First, I didn't tire as I did my tactics training. Second, it increased my focus and attention, because I knew I would only get one shot. I realized as I looked back at my journal entries that I was getting too casual in my training. Instead of calculating variations, I was guessing just based on initial impressions - and I was getting enough of them correct to reinforce this habit.

Similarly, I eliminated nearly all of my blitz play. Part of this is my desire to create beautiful chess and thus wanting to focus on longer time control games. Also, although I believe blitz has a place in chess training, I felt since my time comes at a premium with my family and work, I needed to place my chess time elsewhere.

Because of this shift, I am much more attentive when I play both online and in over-the-board tournament games. When I played blitz, I often "binged" - if I lost, I would play again until I won a few in a row. I would spend an hour or two and get 5-10 games in. However, the quality of those games and their instructive value were fairly low. Now, playing only two or three longer time control games per week, I have a different level of focus and effort.

Although I generally have an abundance mentality about life, this is a case where having a scarcity mentality creates both urgency and effort in a positive way!

Applications


Here are a few suggestions on how you might apply what I'm talking about to help optimize your chess training.
  • Measure your effort levels and focus during your chess training. Use a journal or spreadsheet.
  • Measure how much time you train and play each day. Compare this with your effort levels and focus - if you find a drop-off after a certain amount of time, you could be burning out or overtraining.
  • Consider setting an upper bound to how much time or how many activities you will do each day. For example, set a two hour cap on your study time or a 10 problem cap on your tactical training.
  • Observe differences in your mood, energy, and level of effort after you have made changes.
  • Experiment with different aspects of your training - e.g. playing, studying, training drills, etc.
  • Consider the time and effort you spend on non-chess activities that can effect your chess performance such as sleep and nutrition. Redirecting some time and effort towards those may be a beneficial change.

Conclusion


When it comes to training at chess, it's not only the amount of time that we put into it. It's also the activities we choose to engage in as well as the level of engagement, attention, and effort we exert during that time that effect how much we can improve. 

The right strategy I think is an individual choice, based on factors such as your other responsibilities, your mental endurance (which can be trained to some extent), as well as your ambitions and goals in chess. Like chess, the pieces on your own personal "board" looks different than the next person's, and thus different plans and moves have to be considered.

Your Turn


Did you enjoy this article?

Are you going to try some of the ideas I mention? 

If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on Twitter or Facebook. 

Also, follow me on Twitter, where I share all of my chess writing and activity as well as try to spread positive messages in general.

Good luck and as always, Better Chess!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Four Beginner Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."
-Shunryu Suzuki 

I was playing in a tournament recently and was watching some of the games in the U1000 section. Most of the players had just started playing that year and it was good to see their enthusiasm and competitive spirit. It was also a special tournament for me because my own children started their chess journey and played in the unrated section for their first tournament.

As I watched their games, I began to notice a few common types of mistakes the players were making in their games. I've been there too. In this article, we'll discuss a few of the prominent ones I noticed and how to avoid them.

Ignoring Your Opponent's Moves

The tell-tale sign of this was seeing the player's hand make a move and press the clock and then hover over the next piece he plans on moving (often the same one he just moved). All of this without even looking at his opponent's side of the board. 

Remember in chess that it takes two to tango. Chess is a very interesting art because not only do you use your own creative powers along with your logic and reasoning, your opponent does as well. In fact, his creative and reasoning ability is focused on plans and intentions diametrically opposed to yours! We just can't ignore what he's doing or capable of doing.

Here is one of the positions I saw.


This is an extreme example but it is not an uncommon one for beginners to make.

Our next example comes from a more conventional middlegame position. In this case, Black sees the simple threat of an under-defended piece and makes a move to resolve the situation. However, she ignores (or doesn't see) the potential tactical shot.



Often times, when beginners make these mistakes they often kick themselves, because it is not necessarily a concept that they don't understand, but usually a move they did not see.

In the example above, if Black was given the position in from White's point of view and told that it was White to "Move and Win" she would have seen the fork in less than 10 seconds. However, because Black isn't in the habit of considering her opponent's responses, it wasn't a part of her decision making process.

How can we fix this mistake? First, I think a lot of experience will help naturally as players will start to come up with ways to avoid simple mistakes lest they continue to lose because of them.. I think we can accelerate the process though by being aware of it and taking action. Here are a few ideas:

  • Follow Blumenfeld's Rule: Before you make your next move, as yourself, "Am I allowing mate in one? Am I allowing my queen to get taken? Am I allowing my rook to get taken?" and so on. Although this may seem like it takes a lot of time, it will become automatic and it will save a lot of heartache as you avoid dropping those queens!
  • When studying master games or going through your own games, identify the attack and defense relationships between the pieces. For example, when you move a piece, identify what pieces are attacked by it or defended by it. This will help you develop your awareness.
  • Practice checkmate problems. Although I primarily use Chess Tempo and Chessity for tactics training, I really like Ideachess for its ability to select checkmate problems from two-movers to four-movers. Start with two-movers and move on to mates-in-three. Doing these will develop your board vision as you will need to know how each piece works to checkmate or defend the opposing king.

Lone Wolf Pieces

The second thing I noticed was that the players were often sending in one (maybe two) pieces to attack a target.

Sometimes this might be in the opening when a player gets his knight or queen out, and then tries to probe for weaknesses that just don't appear. Or they see a piece that's en prise so they attack it, only for it to be defended on the next move.

Here are a few tips to cure this particular issue:

  • Remember to develop your pieces in the opening before starting an attack. I discuss this topic more fully in my article on learning opening moves.
  • When you decide to attack a target, think about your opponent's response and how you will follow-up to the initial defense. See if you can build up an attack on a single target.
  • Make sure that all of your pieces are participating in the game. When you're not sure what to do, ask yourself, "Which of my pieces are not doing anything yet?" Find something for it to do.
  • Study the games of the great masters for examples of how players coordinate their pieces. See the Morphy game I have included below.
Here is an example of planning ahead and building up pressure on a simple target using the example of an isolated pawn.

One of the great Paul Morphy's skills was using all of his pieces to conduct an attack. Here he demonstrates this ability in fine fashion against Spanish-Cuban master Celso Golmayo. You can also check out my video on this game.


There are times when one must "go it alone." However, your chess pieces in general shouldn't!

Lacking Basic Endgame Knowledge

There are many reasons why studying the endgame is very useful for beginners.
  • Endgame positions involved fewer pieces and thus are simpler to learn.
  • Endgame knowledge transfers to other parts of the game.
  • Since many beginners (and intermediate players) neglect the endgame, your knowledge of the endgame will give you a competitive advantage.
Here was the ending of a game that was painful for everyone to watch. Both players were rated around 600.


In the beginning, you don't need to know that many concepts and specific endgames. However, the following are useful and very common at all levels:

  • Queen and King versus King (shown above)
  • Rook and King versus King
  • Two Rooks and King versus King
  • King and Pawn versus King
  • Understanding the concept of the opposition
  • Understanding the "square" of the pawn.
You can study these in Jeremy Silman's very useful Silman's Complete Endgame Course. For overall chess training, including a comprehensive endgame course, I also recommend GM Nigel Davies' Tiger Chess program.

Missing Opportunities

The final beginner mistake I will discuss today is missing opportunities. Specifically, in this tournament I saw a lot of missed mates-in-one and hanging pieces. In a way, this is the opposite of the first mistake. Instead of ignoring your opponent's threats, you are ignoring your own opportunities. 

Here is a game I saw between two beginners in their first tournament.


There may be many reasons for this. For example, one side may overvalue the threats of their opponent (like we saw above). However, I think a lot of this is general board awareness and being careful. The solutions are similar to what I mentioned above:

  • Follow Blumenfeld's Rule for offense: "Can I checkmate my opponent? Can I take his queen? Can I take his rook?"
  • Before making a move, ask yourself, "Can I find a better move?"
  • Study basic tactics problems on Chessity or from a book like Chess Tactics for Students by John Bain.
  • Study checkmate problems on Ideachess or from a book like the massive Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations, and Games by Laszlo Polgar (father of the famous Polgar sisters).

Enjoying the Journey

I hope this article provided some useful advice. I think the first step to improvement is awareness that you need to improve. The second step is to take action towards that improvement. I hope you find the tips and suggestions I provided helpful for you.

It was a joy to watch my children play in their first tournament, and I remember the pain I felt when I lost because of a "silly" mistake. With continued study and experience, you'll avoid these common mistakes. Until then, keep playing and enjoying this beautiful game of ours.

Your Turn

Did you enjoy this article?

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Principles of Effective Chess Training (Part 2)

My confidence comes from the daily grind - training my butt off day in and day out.
-Hope Solo, Olympic and professional soccer player

In Part 1 of this 2-part series, we discussed the first two of four principles of effective training. The four principles are:

  • Appropriateness of training - e.g. skill level, complexity, modality, etc.
  • Having clear objectives - knowing what you want to improve or the goal of the training task.
  • Having feedback loops to regulate and adjust the training activities.
  • Systematically reviewing the learned material or skills to ensure retention.
So this week, we will be going into more detail about feedback loops and systematic review.

Feedback Loops

I am writing after having recently watched the 2017 Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons started off very well and had a 28-3 lead early in the 3rd quarter. Many people thought that the New England Patriots were done for. However, as my Buffalo Bills have found out many times over the years, Tom Brady and the Patriots weren't finished until the final whistle blows. 

Sure enough, the Patriots, led by a rejuvenated Tom Brady (who didn't play will in the first half of the game) came back to tie it and eventually win it in overtime. Although it was a history making event - the biggest comeback in a Super Bowl as well as the first overtime in a Super Bowl - I wasn't surprised by the outcome.

One thing that I read about the Patriots years ago was that head coach Bill Belichick and his team were excellent at making halftime adjustments. I'd seen this pattern firsthand when the Patriots played the Bills: New England starts slow, goes into half time slightly behind, then comes back to crush the Bills in the second half.

Well, the point of this story is that feedback loops are like coach Belichick's halftime adjustments. They help us adjust our path when we go astray. 

We have a lot of feedback loops in our life that regulate our behavior. For example, when we perform our profession properly and do what we are employed to do, we received positive feedback in terms of a paycheck and perhaps some praise from either clients, customers, or managers. If we choose not to eat for a very long time, our body will soon give us negative feedback in terms of hunger.

How can we apply this to our chess training? Here are a few ideas:
  • We can analyze our games - see my article Seven Questions to Ask Yourself After Each Chess Game for a process to do this - to find out mistakes and as I discuss in that article to also find our good moves! By doing this, we can reinforce the good aspects of our game (positive or reinforcing feedback) and we can also try to reduce our mistakes or the type of thinking that led to that mistake (negative or balancing feedback). 
  • We can post our games on public forums for others to see and comment on. This has the effect of both motivating us to play our best during our games, but also provides the feedback mechanism of their comments, praise, and criticism to help us adjust our play.
  • Tactics servers such as Chessity and Chess Tempo give you immediate feedback when you get a problem right or wrong. I like Chessity because it gives you a pleasant "ding" of a bell when you get a problem correct and a slightly harsh buzzer when you get the problem incorrect. 
  • Schedule it into your routine to get feedback or review your games. My article on chess workflows explains how to create these useful routines.
  • Journal about your insights you gain after your training sessions and games. Schedule times periodically - e.g. weekly or monthly - to review these insights and see if you should make any additions or changes to your training.
Without feedback, it's hard to know what we need to do to improve. An analogy I found very useful to understand this is that it's like "bowling with a curtain in front of the pins."

For more information about feedback loops, check out this article by James Clear.

Systematic Review

We get appropriate study material. We are clear about what we want to learn or improve. We have set up some useful feedback loops. All of this means nothing if we don't remember.

The fact is that we as humans have memories that fail us at times (especially as we age - which I'm noticing a lot more these last couple years). Or perhaps the more accurate way to look at it is that our access to our memories fails us at times.

Since our memories are not perfect, we need to review what we have learned regularly in order to remember and apply it when it matters most - during our games.

Now if you've taken care of the first three steps, you're ahead of the game. The previous principles we've discussed will ensure that the knowledge you've learned is in its best state for future recall. Before I discuss some ideas on how you can review systematically, here are a few more tips about learning and memory:

  • Strive for understanding before memorization. For examples, it will be much harder to remember complex opening variations if you do not understand the underlying tactical and strategic reasons behind the moves.
  • Start from simple to complex. This is one reason why studying the endgame is so effective in helping you improve your overall game. By understanding the power and nuances of each piece in the endgame, your handling of these pieces in the middlegame and opening will improve naturally.
  • Build upon your existing knowledge. Our memories work like the internet in a way...the more links that a piece of knowledge to other knowledge in our memories, the better we understand it and the more likely we are to remember it. For example, studying positions from your opening repertoire or from your own games are easier to remember than other positions.
The general idea behind systematic review is to refresh your memory and to strengthen these memories so that they can be recalled during your games. An effective method of this is called spaced repetition. Basically, you attempt to recall knowledge over time. I've discussed this concept in previous articles, and I think it's a great way to combat forgetting.

How can you apply spaced repetition and systematic review to your training? Here are a few ideas I use in my training:
  • You can try certain software that incorporate spaced repetition. For openings, you can check out Chessable or Chess Position Trainer. (You can read my Chessable review). Although it's not chess-specific, I also enjoy using Supermemo which first introduced me to the concept of spaced repetition. 
Chess Position Trainer schedules your review

  • You can schedule a weekly review of specific positions you want to remember. I got this idea from Chess Master at Any Age by Rolf Wetzell (who creates sets of flashcards). On a weekly basis, I review tactical problems I got wrong on Chess Tempo and Chessity.
I review the "red" problems on a weekly basis (Chess Tempo screenshot)

  • Consider setting up "theme" days for reviewing certain parts of your game. For example, you might schedule days for reviewing your opening repertoire from either the white side or the black side. 
  • When I'm first learning a more complex endgame, I will schedule a weekly session to practice it against the computer. As I feel I understand it, I will increase the time in between practice sessions.
The idea is to have a system or routine to review material you have learned. Some material you may know so well that you don't need to set up a way to review it. For example, I do not need to review the "square" of a pawn or the opposition in my endgames. However, specific king and pawn endgames with king path nuances I still review on a regular basis.

If you want to learn more about memory and space repetition learning, I encourage you to read some very interesting articles on the Supermemo website

Conclusion

If you apply the principles that you learned in these last couple articles, I think you'll be very pleased with the results. These are principles that I've learned studying how we learn and remember things as well as from experience both in chess and other endeavors, including martial arts and other sports. They've served me well and I hope they will help you improve and enjoy chess more effectively and efficiently.

Your Turn

I hope you enjoyed the article. If you found it helpful, please share it with others.

Which of these principles do you plan on applying to your training first?

Which of these principles do you already apply to your training?

Do you want to learn more about any of these principles?