As I mentioned last time, “the best is the enemy of the good” when it comes to devising chess training plans. Ideal plans do not long survive contact with the reality of your daily life. To repeat myself again: Do not make a plan that assumes conditions for your work will be good: make a plan that assumes conditions will be bad. Because they probably will be.
Let me suggest for your consideration a chess training plan, based on the overlearning principle. First, however, I will offer several thoughts to guide you in applying the overlearning principle to design your own plan.
Thought #1: Individual chessplayers differ in what they need.
What part of your game do you need to work on most? If you are like most amateurs, you may find it hard to decide where to start. Unlike grandmasters who are pretty strong in all areas, and are only weak in certain areas relative to their strength in other areas, your game is probably one big weakness, starting with your openings and ending with your endings, that is if you ever reach the ending.
Nevertheless you have to start somewhere. Tactics is always a good place to start; basic endgames are another good place. But it’s your call.
Thought #2: You have to put in some time every day.
As Kramnik told me in 1994, though I did not heed his words at the time, “You have to work at chess every day.” Let me suggest that you really have to overlearn chess for a minimum of one hour per day, if you want to make significant progress before you die—not only because you need to accrue some time on task to make an impact on your neurons, but also because there really is a lot to learn!
Thought #3: Not all your chess study time has to be overlearning.
It’s my belief that overlearning should be the core of your study effort, so that you gradually develop and enlarge your area of expertise, gaining confidence and skill thereby. But you may also want to study certain chess material without overlearning it. Later, if you decide you like it and it’s important enough, you can add it to your overlearning program.
Thought #4: Overlearning should consist of practicing skills, not memorizing facts.
It is worth repeating GM Nigel Davies’ extremely important point: “Focus on the how, not the what.” The categories of chess skill that you can best overlearn, as far as I can tell, are tactics and endgames. Why is this? Well, because doing this kind of work engages your brain in much the same ways that playing a game does, which means you can probably be relatively successful in transferring your improved skills in these areas to game situations. In future posts I will discuss in more detail exactly how you might go about studying tactics and endgames, as well as positional play and openings (though I have been less successful in developing effective study techniques in the latter two areas).
Thought #5: Minimize time spent overlearning opening theory.
To me the most serious practical problem with overlearning openings is that it is too easy to be lazy and just play over the moves on the page (or the screen) while your brain is turned off. This is not chess work. This is not deliberate practice. This is not improving skills. This is not focusing on the how. This is not making concrete decisions to solve practical problems. This is merely reporting to the office and punching the clock. To me the lack of actual chess work involved is a big problem, so I can’t recommend overlearning opening monographs. Life is too short, your free time too limited, and the activity just doesn’t seem useful enough if your goal is to “focus on the how.” See below under “Game Analysis” where I suggest a better way you can benefit from all those opening manuals (and DVDs) that are gathering dust on your shelves.
Thought #6: Playing serious games is probably the single best thing you can do.
Play at least 50 games per year (per Botvinnik). Personally I have found it very useful in the past to play one game a week in a club or a league, because the obligation to show up every week means that your mind will never drift too far away from thinking about chess. Also it can be helpful to your chess development if you know your opponent in advance and can spend some time planning your campaign against him. However, weekend tournaments when you spend many hours playing chess over two or more consecutive days are also good jolts to your system now and then. Players differ in how much serious chess they can stand: but the more often you can play without burning yourself out, the better your chances to improve as a player.
Thought #7: Squeeze the juice from every game by analyzing it soon after you play it.
Analyze all your games as fully as necessary: the opening, middlegame, and ending. This is when you should pull out your opening monographs and look at them. Focused opening study is going to be more efficient because you will feel motivated to investigate issues that recently arose (or could have arisen) in your own games. You are also more likely to retain some memory of the opening lines you looked at. I have often read that it’s good to start your post-game analysis right away, by discussing the game with your opponent. I believe this can be a valuable exercise, but is not always practical, for instance late on a weeknight when one or both of you has work or school early the next morning, or (as sometimes regrettably happens) when one of you is bitter or deeply chagrined about how the game turned out.
Let me wrap up this post with a suggested training schedule based on overlearning, which also takes into account the other considerations discussed above. I think this schedule ought to help most amateurs gain 50-100 rating points in a year.
– Overlearn one hour per day. If you can’t put in one hour on a certain day, at least do something—even if only five minutes—to engage your brain with chess. Then make up the time the next day if possible, or on the weekend.
– Start your program with an easy, readable collection of master games that talks about general chess principles and “shows you what right looks like,” as we say in the U.S. Army. I suggest a book by Irving Chernev, such as my first chess book Logical Chess, Move By Move or The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played (recommended by no less an authority than GM Davies). GM John Nunn has ranted against Chernev’s work, but Nunn is wrong, and I will talk about why he is wrong in another post that I have already written.
– Read that first book, read it again (we’re overlearning, remember?), and then work through a book of basic endgames. I suggest Averbakh’s Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge. It is written in the generic humorless style of the Soviet era but nevertheless gives a valuable overview of its subject. If you are like me, you will not master its contents in one reading or even two or three, but you must nevertheless master everything in this book if you hope to go further in your endgame studies, so it is a worthy addition to your overlearning program.
– Re-read Chernev, re-read Averbakh, and now add a basic book on tactics to your overlearning rotation. I recommend Chernev and Reinfeld, Winning Chess. Yes, most of these positions are not too difficult, but some are surprisingly nuanced (though the nuances are rarely explained). Winning Chess is especially valuable because it dissects all the major tactical themes (pin, skewer, double attack, weak back rank, mating patterns, etc.) and gives many examples of each. Even after you know all the solutions by heart, going through this book is useful. It’s like the concert pianist practicing his scales.
– OK, so now re-read the first three books on your overlearning list—are you getting tired of them? Too bad—and add a fourth book. What should that book be? Well, here we return to the question, what do you think you most need to work on? I will suggest an answer. If you are like most amateurs, tactics is far and away the most important chess subject you can study, and it is also the easiest for you to practice in a productive game-like manner, so you could argue that tactics should be overweighted in your study program. This in fact is what I did argue with myself. And I won the argument. (Wait—can you win an argument with yourself?) Not only do I believe your fourth overlearning book should be a tactics book, but I believe your next several overlearning books should be tactics books. Here are my specific suggestions:
– Renaud and Kahn, The Art of the Checkmate (Mating patterns, with sample problems!)
– Reinfeld, 1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate (Many practical problems to solve! You will get better at calculating, and develop your pattern recognition!)
– Reinfeld, 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations (Many more practical problems to solve! You will get even better at calculating, and develop your pattern recognition even more!)
There you go. These suggestions should keep you busy for a while. More to the point, they will help you improve at chess.