Author Archives: NigelD

About NigelD

Nigel Davies is an International Chess Grandmaster living in Southport in the UK. The winner of 15 international tournaments he is also a former British U21 and British Open Quickplay Champion and has represented both England and Wales on several occasions. These days he works as a chess teacher, his students including his 11 year old son Sam.

The Changing Face of Junior Chess

Last weekend I was a coach at the National Junior Squad Coaching Weekend in Knowsley. One of the sessions was not for the kids but for parents instead, and an interesting topic came up. Chess is now very popular at primary school level (up to age 11) but on moving to secondary school most of the kids give the game up.

One of the main problems is clear, in the UK there seems to be no structure in place for them to continue their chess at secondary school. This is very different to the situation when I was at secondary school, back in the 1970s. Chess was very popular in secondary schools then, with matches taking place at both a local and national level. I also got the chance to play for a thriving club which had a quite child friendly venue.

What has changed? A number of things really. First of all the child safety regulations have become much tougher making it far more complex to organize a match than just booking a mini bus or arranging sandwiches for visiting teams. There’s also a lot more homework for the kids plus marking this and other obligations for teachers. None of this encourages anyone to volunteer for after school chess match duty.

As far as clubs are concerned they face a major issue that they seem to be dying out. Most chess club members seem to be over 50 and there’s not much sign of any young players coming in to keep them going. A few clubs have junior sections in which they try to incorporate young players, but this all needs time and effort. As a chess parent I can attest to the difficulties I’ve had in finding a suitable adult club for my son. Most of them seem to be held in drinking establishments and they go on too late. In many countries it’s often different of course with chess being played at weekends rather than in the evenings.

Internet chess is doubtless partly responsible for diminishing numbers at clubs. It’s not that people prefer playing on the internet, it’s just easier for them to get their chess fix in that way when balancing various aspects of their lives. To some extent young players who want to continue playing after 11 can use internet games as practice. But it’s not the ‘real thing’, and doesn’t really provide the social aspects that many players enjoy.

So how should a young player, who has played at primary school, continue his interest? Basically you have to do what you can with the resources that are available and a very important step, in my view, is that he or she should make the transition to adult tournaments as early as possible. How can you make this leap from junior chess? Essentially in the same way that anyone improves, do lots of tactics, read some good books (possibly with an adult explaining things along the way) and try to play some good quality games. And if you can find a good one then get a coach.

Nigel Davies

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New Year Resolutions

First of all I’d like to wish Chess Improver readers a happy and successful New Year! Although I don’t think this time has any ‘real’ significance, it is a time at which many of us want to draw a line beneath the past and start again.

What are suitable New Year Resolutions for someone who wants to improve their chess? Essentially they need to be framed in terms of practice rather than results. A poorly constructed Resolution would be to ‘win every game’, as this is largely dependent on what the opponent does and is likely to fail early on. A very good one, on the other hand, would be to solve a certain number of chess tactics every day.

How many problems should that be? Well it’s best not to be too ambitious as it will be dispiriting to fall short and this in turn may lead to the abandonment of the project. It’s also good to build in some flexibility whereby you have a chance to catch up if you miss a day or two.

Are there any ready made platforms for this? Well Chessity is a good one that my son uses, a decent goal being to get and maintain an 80% plus training activity rating. For 100% you need to solve 20 positions per day for 20 days so this allows a certain latitude.

Isn’t it too late to make New Year Resolutions as we’ve now reached January 6th? Well the good news is that there are lots of different dates for the New Year, depending on cultural traditions. The Aztecs, for example, had March 10th as their New Year and many other cultures also had New Year in the spring. In some ways this makes more intuitive sense as everything is growing, there’s not much new about the middle of winter.

One might also ask if there are better ways to look at the New Year so that it’s not the only starting point for improvement projects. There was also a nice post by Garry Kasparov on Facebook in which two of the points he made are well worth quoting:

  • The end of the year is a convenient reminder to look back and to look ahead. But you should do this every single day to reach your goals.
  • Let that be a New Year’s Resolution, to not wait until New Year’s Eve to make resolutions! Make them regularly & monitor your results.

This makes a lot of sense to me, the New Year can be a reminder to live an intentional life rather than sleep walk through it. Renewal can take place at any time and in any place, but the first step has to be a willingness to change.

Do I have any New Year Resolutions? Not really, though I have a number of projects which I’m hoping to come to fruition this coming year. First of all I’ll be making a small time comeback in local tournaments as my son Sam is now more or less established in adult competition and we can go to tournaments together. I’m also close to launching my coaching and video site Tiger Chess which I hope will become a major venue for those who want to improve their chess.

Nigel Davies

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The Windy Road To Better Chess

Last Sunday my son suddenly produced a tournament result that was some 400 points better than his rating. People were more than surprised, they were gobsmacked. So what had happened?

In Sam’s case I think it’s down to the stages in someone’s development and at 11 years of age your brain can start to change a lot. I’ve been seeing changes in him for a few months now, he had started doing much better at school and reason things out with his chess. It looks like he’s reached the formal operational stage in Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.

There’s also our extensive training program, but then that’s another story.

Kids are known to be able to improve quickly but nobody really expects the same of adults. It’s true that most adults fail to improve, yet there are exceptions. The case of Jonathan Hawkins amazing rise in his late teens is the stuff of legends. And I’ve seen this in others too, for example Ivars Dahlberg made an amazing rise from the 2200s to the high 2480s in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

What’s the secret? I think it can be many things, but common factors will be a strong desire to improve (strong enough to cause someone to practice) plus some insights into how to do it. In Hawkins’ case he made an extensive study of the endgame whereas Dahlberg managed to conquer his nerves during games with a series of relaxation protocols.

How should someone gain such insights? Probably the most important part is self-honesty, a willingness to look in the mirror and see the warts alongside any good points. Not many people can do this, partly because they lack the knowledge to put their play into perspective and partly because they may not want to admit to certain weaknesses.

In the light of the above the sort of smooth progression that’s implied in age/rating charts loses it’s meaning. Players that improve will show a steady rise, but the stats don’t include those who fail to make progress or drop out altogether (which includes most of the kids that played at primary school). If they did we’d see a very different picture, a sea of great flatness with perhaps a slight rise from childhood followed by a falling away in the twilight years.

Extraordinary achievements in any field simply don’t come on their own and the norm is not of improvement but rather stagnation. What is required is extraordinary effort, and this can come at any time once the decision to do so is made.

Nigel Davies

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The Comeback Trail

During the last few years I’ve played very little chess, having wanted not to lose out on time with my son. But as he’s getting older, and starting to play in adult tournaments, the time is rapidly approaching when we’ll play regularly in the same events. As he gets older I won’t have to worry about him waiting around should his game finish before mine, and with him moving more slowly this is less likely to happen.

So it seems I’ll be making a comeback, at least in local weekend events, and later on we may venture further afield depending on how things go. This of course means that I’ll need to don my chess player hat again, rather than being a coach. What does this entail?

I got my first test of this last Sunday at the Halifax Chess Club charity blitz tournament. Playing with my son there worked out just fine, he just waited patiently if his games finished first. The chess seemed to go OK as I managed to win the tournament with 8.5/9. But my observations contained some negative points as well as the positive:

  1. I had plenty of energy throughout, probably because of extensive tai chi and qigong practice.
  2. There didn’t seem to be a huge amount of rust, though playing rather than teaching was somewhat disorientating.
  3. I made several serious tactical oversights.
  4. My endgame play seems to have shown some improvement, probably because this one of the things I teach quite a lot.
  5. My opening knowledge felt as if I was a jack of all trades rather than a real expert in anything.
  6. It was useful to have the lunch prepared in advance, especially bringing a sandwich for my son rather than a pot noodle, which is more complex to prepare.

What are the improvements I can make? Well some of them seem obvious, for example it makes sense to keep in regular practice as far as playing is concerned, and during light periods to play some games anonymously on the web.

Missing tactics bothered me quite a bit more and indicates that I should at least try to get some daily practice in. There are plenty of ways to do this, for example there are even tactics challenges you can have on your phone. A suitable puzzle book is also a good idea.

Re the openings, there are many levels at which you can study them, the most important thing being that there are no massive gaps. A good way to shed light on such deficiencies is to adopt an approach I learned from Steve Giddins, which is to write down exactly what you intend to play against every possible opening, and do it in some detail. If you don’t, for example, have an answer ready for 1.b3 then this would represent a hole in your knowledge. And something should be done about it.

As with everything this will take time, though there’s a lot that can be done with the lost moments in a day, for example the time that’s normally wasted whilst waiting around can be profitably employed doing tactics. Playing is much harder, especially if you need to travel to strong events, though the internet makes a bit of regular practice a whole lot easier. As for the study of openings that’s probably the most complex issue of all, but only when you get to a high level (eg 2500+) at which a broad knowledge needs to be supplemented by a degree of specialization.

Nigel Davies

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Can You Improve Too Much?

A question that’s never asked is whether you can improve too much, probably because most people have trouble improving at all. Actually it’s quite an interesting and relevant one as players who get over 2200, especially titled players, have difficulty finding suitable opposition. This is quite natural because players with this sort of rating tend to be quite rare. But it can be disappointing to spend a lifetime honing your skills, only to discover that you have trouble using them.

Travelling to international tournaments is the solution of course, but life can get in the way of such things. Internet chess is imperfect at best, though many end up taking this route. As for playing ‘down’ in local events, it’s not really satisfactory at all. You develop bad habits by playing weaker opposition, the playing conditions tend to be poor and people can even become resentful and hostile if you dare to play for a rival team!

I think this is why many Grandmasters have simple stopped playing; they loved the time they were globetrotting professionals too much to settle for being amateurs again. Actually this is how I feel myself, though I may be playing in some local events with my son as he develops his game.

So what’s the optimal level you should aim for for chess to remain an enjoyable hobby? Well probably around 2200, which is not too high for club chess whilst allowing you the possibility of international tournaments and playing against titled professionals. Probably it’s still OK to be a bit higher than that, maybe even somewhere in the 2300s. But after that you’re no longer in the amateur ranks even if chess is still a hobby for you.

How can you stop improving and just maintain this sort of level? Well probably it’s best not to study too much and take some time off the game if you feel chess strength surging within you. In the worst case you can adopt some dubious openings, for example the Latvian Gambit against 1.e4 and the Grob as White. Though this might take the fun out of the game if you’ve reached a level in which the pieces and pawns become one with your psyche and dubious play becomes an offence to the soul!

Nigel Davies

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Another Database Horror Story

I’ve investigated database issues before but it’s worth revisiting this subject. There’s really way too much information out there and then it’s often filled with mistakes. What improvers really need is just enough to engage the mind so that it can grasp the method being employed.

Here’s a game by Lajos Portisch from the days when he played the Closed Sicilian as White, an opening that he would later recommend in the brilliant How to Open a Chess Game, a book which he co-authored with some other illustrious players. At both Chessgames.com and in Megabase 2013 there are horrible errors in the notation, which means that it doesn’t make sense. This is quite a loss as it’s a beautiful illustration of how to play this type of game, so here’s my ‘interpreted’ version:

Nigel Davies

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Sit On Your Hands

When you see a good move, sit on your hands and see if you can find a better one.

I’d forgotten this old tip from Dr. Tarrasch until one of my Facebook friends recently reminded me of it. Actually it’s one of the best bits of advice you can give to a player, especially young ones who tend to move too fast.

This is a perrenial problem for coaches of young players and many address it in a less effective manner. Once, when I wasn’t there to look after him, my son was seen to be moving too fast and was instructed to ‘write his moves down’ in order to slow him down. Unfortunately, rather than helping him concentrate, this proved to be a huge distraction because he simply wasn’t used to it. It’s like telling a tight rope walker to count backwards so he won’t rush and hurt himself.

Of course one might well ask why, if this is such great advice, you don’t see top players sitting on their hands. The answer is that physical prompts of this sort only need to be used until a particular habit has been established, so as soon as moves are no longer made impulsively the prompt can be phased out.

This is the same with other protocols such as the Blumenfeld Rule, if you use it consciously for a while then eventually you’ll do it automatically. Here is how Alexander Kotov described this rule in his famous book, Think Like a Grandmaster. And note that you now should trace the move on your leg rather than writing it on the score sheet because FIDE have outlawed writing moves down before playing them (apparently this is ‘taking notes’):

It often happens that a player carries out a deep and complicated calculation, but fails to spot something elementary right at the first move. In order to avoid such gross blunders, the Soviet master B. Blumenfeld made this recommendation:-
When you have finished your calculations, write down the move you have decided upon on the score sheet. Then examine the position for a short time ‘through the eyes of a patzer’. Ask whether you have left a mate in one on, or left a piece or a pawn to be taken. Only when you have convinced yourself that there is no immediate catastrophe for you should you make the planned move.

In the following game Samuel Reshevsky would have benefited from using the Blumenfeld rule. A few seconds thought before playing his 92nd move might have led him to see White’s stalemate trick which cost him a valuable half point. Of course he might have used it for the first 91 and then just forgotten due to tiredness:

Nigel Davies

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Why The Jedi Needed Chess Lessons

Having had the Star Wars movies run in the background for hundreds of hours I’ve learned quite a bit about the Jedi. And I’ve also come to a staggering conclusion; from the point of view of strategy and planning they were just hopeless.

Here’s a listing of Jedi mistakes which a strong chess player would probably have avoided. I therefore have to conclude that the Jedi younglings needed chess lessons, and probably from Richard James or Hugh Patterson:

  • Throughout the entire series of films the Jedi seemed to drift along trying to ‘sense’ what the dark side was up to rather than reason it out, not considering the consequences of their actions. This is similar to looking at a chess position from a general point of view but without calculating anything.
  • A serious error was made when they foolishly made an overt attempt to arrest the chancellor rather than have him quietly assassinated. In doing so they created the pretext for him to accuse them of treason and issue order 66.
  • Master Windu had an opportunity to kill Chancellor Palpatine during the arrest, but hesitated because he had some inner conflicts (finishing him off would not have been the ‘Jedi way’).
  • Windu had a similar opportunity in episode 2, this time to kill Count Dooku and other separatist leaders. Once again he hesitated which resulted in the deaths of numerous Jedi before Master Yoda flew in to the rescue.
  • Anakin Skywalker had a similar inner conflict during his second duel with Count Dooku, which shows that just hesitation was not unique to Windu. Skywalker’s conflict was only resolved by the decisive Chancellor Palpatine who instructed him to ‘do it’, meanwhile it seems that Jedi training was missing a simple thinking protocol for such moments. If a Sith is ‘too dangerous to be left alive’ then it should be clear that they should kill him at the first opportunity rather than procrastinate.
  • Not making Skywalker a Master and asking him to spy on the Chancellor were serious mistakes, the consequences of which (alienating him) should not have been hard to anticipate. The Jedi Council gave the impression at this time of being rule bound and inflexible.
  • Only using a light sabre reminds me of players who only ever use certain openings, regardless of their suitability. It should have been obvious to the Jedi that the also needed a distance weapon like a blaster.

Here anyway is a good illustration of how they could have improved, rather than trying to talk your opponent to death just checkmate him:

Nigel Davies

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