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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?


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