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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.