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Some not-too-specific thoughts about learning in chess.

First thoughts on chess improvement

Posted by pablito15 on March 11, 2010

Leaving aside the infinite why of chess improvement, let’s jump straight into the how. Today, more “self-help” style books, noisomely telling you “what they are going to do for you” or “what is going to happen” after you’ve read them, than books that will genuinely help you improve your chess, appear on the market. Let’s be clear, one does not improve at chess by reading 200 pages of text in a 300 page Moskalenko book, chess improvement is example & test based, and there is no substitute for hard work– you will gain more from studying 500 tactical problems than all the 200 page Neil McDonald talk-fests in the world.

There have been many famous quotes on chess in it’s long history, “pawns are the soul of chess” (Philidor), “chess is 99% tactics” (Teichmann), “modern chess is far too concerned with things like pawn structure- forget it! Checkmate wins the game.” (Nigel Short during his ’93 World Title match with Garri Kasparov, much to the horror of spectating GM’s!) However the one I find most accurate is from that adonis of a teacher Andrew Soltis: “chess is 99% calculation”.

Calculation of what exactly? It is equally true to say that one cannot usefully annotate a game, or calculate properly until after one understands things like pawn structure strengths and weaknesses (and a plethora of other concepts that lie pushing and pulling like currents under the placid surface of this game). In any case, that is the simplification  I will put to you: Chess is primarily a game of calculation, and to calculate we need not only spatial ability/mental muscles (which come from hard work and nothing else!) but also the base understandings of the game in order to know what will be positive and negative for us.

Back on topic: Towards this end, with my training partner Andreas we have developed a training plan based on example & test based teaching, that require you to first study a position, calculate as best you can, offer a move, and then read the brilliantly instructive explanations of these hand picked positions. This is not only building our mental muscles, but improving our understanding of the game too. We have hit on several excellent books we feel are improving not just our ability but also our enjoyment of chess too. The two principle books we are using are:

  • Bent Larsen’s: Good move guide (1982)
  • Andrew Soltis’: Pawn Structure chess (1976)

Any serious player with a penchant for chess study should pick up Larsen’s book and work through the examples. He has a section with 100 mid-strength tactics, 50 invaluable (to any level) “find the plan” positions with instructive conclusions, a “find the master move” section with games, and a “practical end game” section- as I said what is invaluable in it is that it asks you to work rather than read. It is a no-nonsense book.

There are two types of genuine improvement in chess. Improvement of your “base strength” with things like tactics study, end game study, pawn structure study/knowledge. This is knowledge that doesn’t go away and doesn’t lie- before one hopes to understand any opening book, or even remember the moves properly, one must have a decent “base strength”, as this is what helps us understand the opening moves! It should be the primary focus in chess improvement as everything flows on from your end game, pawn structure and tactical understandings. And secondly, improvement of your “practical chances” via the annotated study of games in your chosen opening. This will not “improve your chess” as much as pure study of those basic chess materials, but may help you win some games anyway.

So my first message on chess improvement is this: ask yourself if you really want to work hard, or quit pretending now!

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