One of my Tiger Chess members asked me an interesting question today about the approach I would you recommend for tactical training. My answer is actually very simple, it’s the one that will be implemented.
A lot of players spend a lot of time talking about improvement rather than actually practising. You can find evidence of this on chess forums in which improvement methods and the value of different openings and books are discussed at length. But do the participants then knuckle down and implement their conclusions? Probably not.
This is of course procrastination, putting off what needs to be done (practice) in favour of chatting with friends. In this case the fact that the conversation is about improvement can give people the impression that they’re doing their best to improve. But it’s still procrastination rather than actual practice.
The truth of the matter is that all openings are playable, and there’s little qualitative difference when you go under 2400. Of course it helps a lot to know what you’re doing, but that means practice. As for the books, they can all be helpful when players actually study them with their minds engaged, but who does that? In a way the ones full of errors can stimulate personal study more than those that intimidate the reader with reams of computer checked analysis.
What about computers? In a way they can be the ultimate tool for procrastinating because the computer can do the work whilst its owner chats online and posts its conclusions. Someone can look particularly authoritative when they do this, but once again no work is actually being done.
What is the answer for someone who does this? Well there are some good books on curing procrastination, but above all self-honesty is required. Did you actually study chess today? And if so, how much did you do?
As chess has been cursed with ‘win with’ books for decades, it’s no surprise that there are now plenty of adverts around for miracle chess courses. The claim is that they produce amazing results in a short period of time, usually being available for a limited time only and at a special, knocked down price.
They don’t work of course, it’s all just marketing. Yet the quick fix still has enough appeal to get people to part with their money.
Of course players, even older ones, can improve their chess. But it takes time and effort, as with mastering something like the violin. Is there a ballpark figure of how much work is involved? Well there’s been a lot of debate about the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, as described by Anders Ericsson, and actually that’s not a bad ball park figure. Certainly it’s good to get away from the idea that people can improve substantially at something with just a modest time investment.
With this in mind I’ve created a strategy course on my Tiger Chess site which comprises 160 weekly lessons. The lessons and assignments and ‘digestion’ of the material will probably take one or two hours each, so that’s still not too many hours. But together with concurrent tactics practice (3 hours per week), endgames (another 3 hours per week), 50 tournament games per year (let’s say 4 hours each) and building a solid set of openings (perhaps 2 hours per week), the 160 weeks will contain at least a couple of thousand hours of productive work.
This kind of commitment is usually rewarded, though of course there are many variables. Exceptional talent makes the learning process much easier, as does studying the right material. But what won’t do it is a couple of snatched hours at the weekend.
Since my teenage years I’ve probably spent around 15-20 hours per week on chess and now have tens of thousands of hours under my belt. If I’d been blessed with a bit more talent I might have become REALLY good!
Here’s an interesting video of the London Chess Classic blitz qualifier, won by England’s Michael Adams. I hasten to add that players of this level can play meaningful blitz games, but as you go down the rating scale it becomes ever more destructive to players’ thinking habits:
This great event finishes on Sunday, the official tournament site is here.
This warning from Stephen Hawking got me thinking. First of all I was surprised that he was taking the trouble to lend support for this idea which has been depicted in the movies on numerous occasions. And then I started considering chess players’ relationships with computers and how they’ve changed the nature of the game.
Computers have certainly led to massive advances in the fields of training and preparation; now even some players below 2200 can effectively use engines such as Houdini or Stockfish to prepare critical positions. This has led to many top players eschewing sharp theoretical lines and instead choosing to slug it out in dour positional struggles, with Magnus Carlsen being the leading representative of this approach. Speculative gambits have become quite rare as the work required to prepare them is largely wasted; it’s a serious risk to play the same line in more than one game as future opponents may be very well prepared.
So what lines are good? Basically just about anything that puts the emphasis on the middle game in which both sides have lots of playable alternatives. Your opponent can still prepare using a computer database, but he’s not likely to unleash a decisive opening innovation.
As for artificial intelligence, let’s keep them on a tight rein. I discussed this matter with Michael Koblentz on Facebook and he cited Koblentz’s law of robotics. This included such common sense measures as not given computers weapons, allowing them unilateral control of life support systems, build other computers etc. All common sense really, and of course we should never, ever, let them play chess.
One thing I’ve discovered over the years is that many people play chess for fun. This was a rather alien concept as I’ve always gone for ‘blood’ myself. I’ve also found it difficult to understand why many players don’t really seem to be trying to improve, they just seemed to be enjoying playing some matches, meeting up with their friends and perhaps trying a new opening.
It took me a while to accept that this was a valid approach. The turning point came during one of my seminars in which two attendees took me aside and suggested I do a video on tricks and traps in the opening. They weren’t sure they wanted to spend thousands of hours improving their positional understanding but would get a kick out of springing a few traps on their unsuspecting opponents.
Thus the idea for my Foxy Openings Dirty Tricks videos was born and I made two of them outlining a couple of tricky and surprising opening repertoires. The Dashing Danish could also fall into the category of ‘light entertainment’.
These videos are now all available at my Tiger Chess site, complete with pgn files for download and use in programs like Chess Position Trainer and Chess Openings Wizard. Here’s a video showing a bit more about the Danish one:
Winning a won game is one of the trickiest aspects of chess. In addition to the regular difficulties in combining tactics and strategy, there are great psychological pressures to contend with. For some it’s an internalized parent telling them not to mess it up, others will become careless and wonder when their opponents will resign. Very few players play as well when they recognize they should win with best play.
In the November 2014 Tiger Chess Clinic (available to Full Members only) I take a look at various qualities which can help the process, perhaps the most important of which is endgame skill. The top players certainly have this in spades which is one of the reasons they rarely mess things up.
Here’s Magnus Carlsen at work in the London Chess Classic from a couple of years ago. It looked at first as if it should be a draw, but little by little things slip away for White:
Here meanwhile is some more about the Tiger Chess Clinic:
With White having won the only game with the dreaded Berlin Defence (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6) in the Carlsen – Anand match (and surprisingly Magnus Carlsen was White in this one) it could be that we’ll be seeing 1.e4, and the Ruy Lopez, making a comeback. If this happens then I’d recommend something a bit livelier for Black than clomping around in a Berlin endgame, that arises after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 (Carlsen played 4.d3) 4…Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8. Yawn.
A much livelier alternative is the Moller Defence, which goes 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Bc5. Black develops his pieces on natural squares and has excellent chances to take the initiative in the middle game.
I did a video on the Moller in the 1990s. It was the one I did the most research for, finding some obscure games and analysis of Alexander Alekhine (a Moller exponent in his day) and then taking his conclusions a step further by supplementing them with modern games.
The Moller video is now at my Tiger Chess site, together with a pgn download to make it easier to learn. Here’s a video about how you can learn the Moller in a very effective way:
With Magnus Carlsen having played the Gruenfeld in the first game of the World Championship I guess that a few people may want to follow in his footsteps. How should they go about doing this? Well what they shouldn’t do is buy the biggest and best reviewed book on this opening, it’s just too much to take in. Instead you need to build things up step by step.
At my Tiger Chess site I explain how club level players should go about this with the following Youtube video explaining a bit more about the approach I recommend:
Many players are put off from learning a defence like the Sicilian Najdorf (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6) because of its reputation for being highly theoretical. This is true, but only if you play the sharpest lines at the highest level. At club level the Najdorf can be played with very little knowledge, especially if someone steers clear of the most fashionable lines.
These were my thoughts when I made my Foxy Openings DVD on the Najdorf back in the 1990s. I avoided the most fashionable lines and found that there was relatively little that Black needed to know. And I wasn’t surprised that it hadn’t dated much when I reviewed the material for publication at Tiger Chess.
There was one line that needed some attention, 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Bd7 8.f5!?. This became known as a dangerous try after my initial recordings, but putting it under the microscope it didn’t look that scary and I filmed an extra clip showing how Black should deal with it. So my Najdorf recording is back in business and represents an excellent way for people to get on board this opening.
Here anyway is some more about the Najdorf recording and Tiger Chess:
A vital part of chess skill is a subconscious understanding of ‘micro-patterns’ that jump out at you whenever they arise. There are many such patterns in chess, with strong players quickly realizing things such as the position of rooks relative to passed pawns (usually they should be behind them!).
In the following game I’d like to point out one tiny pattern, that a White knight sitting on b3 behind a Black pawn on b4. This may not look like much at first, but the knight is a tower of strength on that square, being immune from attack along the file. Eventually it captures Black’s pawn on a5 before heading over to the kingside via c6. An Alekhine wins in crushing style.
This pattern is one of the things I discuss in the first of my monthly Tiger Chess clinics which Full Members can access here. It occurred in two of my students’ games, and from entirely different openings. This in turn shows how pattern recognition in chess goes beyond knowing that you have to do X, Y and Z in a particular opening and how strong players are able to orient themselves in lines that they’ve never played before.