Author Archives: Bryan Castro

About Bryan Castro

Bryan Castro is a businessman and writer from Buffalo, NY. When he's not spending time with his family or working, he can be found playing chess or practicing martial arts. He combines his interests of personal development and chess on his site Better Chess Training (betterchesstraining.com).

Active versus Passive Learning

When studyiing chess, an important element is not only the material you choose to study – whether it be a chess book, video, or software – but your level of engagement with the material. We can categorize learning (in general) into two types – active and passive learning. Although there is some debate around this (which I won’t delve too much into), in general active learning is favored for knowledge retention and application.

Passive learning is generally what you do when you watch a chess video or listen to a lecture. I also think passive learning occurs when you blindly follow chess engine analysis (and some may not consider this learning at all). You are “receiving” the instruction from a source.

Active learning by contrast is as it sounds – the student is engaging with the material. This could include activities such as solving tactical problems, doing Solitaire Chess, or analyzing your chess games (without assistance). You are a participant in the creation of the learning process.

Although I think there is a place for passive learning – for example, with beginners who know nothing of chess or when learning a totally new opening – we should try to make our training and study more active. 

In the following video, I discuss three techniques you can use to be more actively engaged with the chess videos your watch.

Try these methods out next time you watch a chess video!

Bryan Castro

More Benefits of Studying the Classics

Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I’ve understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick.

~Bruce Lee

I’ve written before about the importance of studying the games of the old masters (as have many chess writers). One of the benefits of doing this is that we can often see some of the essential strategic and tactical elements of chess in a very pure or perhaps primitive form.

As modern chess theory and the general knowledge of chess players developed and improved through the decades, some of the building blocks of chess have become buried in complexity. The initial purpose of a move originally played in the 19th or 20th century gets obscured as computer analysis and scores of chess masters analyze complications and tactical divergences to a degree that beginning and intermediate players are no longer aware of the fundamental purpose of specific moves. They play the move because their chess book or database says it is a good move.

Of course, good opening chess books, videos, and coaches hopefully can help in this matter. However, one enjoyable way is to study the earliest incarnations of these moves, as played by masters who paved the way.

When Magnus Carlsen or Wesley So plays a move, they have the advantage of having seen the first 15 or 20 moves in dozens (or hundreds) of games played by masters over the years. The early masters such as Lasker, Capablanca, and Alekhine were building on very new theory – much of which they created themselves! This is not to discredit the modern elite player, who have to both remember, understand, and synthesize these mass amounts of theory to compete at the highest levels. However, it is both pleasing and fruitful to understand the problem of a chess position from the eyes of a master who is seeing it for the first time, or perhaps only a few times before.

So don’t neglect your study of the early masters.

Here is an example from a classic game between Edgar Colle (well-known for his opening for the White pieces) and Ernst Gruenfeld (also well-known for his origination of the defense that bears his name – although it is not featured in this game). This game features many instructive points, particularly if you find joy in a beautiful attack.

Bryan Castro

Using Checkmate Training to Improve Your Chess

I think sometimes people underestimate the value of studying and training checkmate patterns. Like other patterns, such as pawn structures, basic tactics, or opening moves, checkmate patterns have many benefits.

Here are some of the benefits of studying and practicing checkmates.

  • Being able to spot checkmate patterns frees your mind from the burden of having to calculate it “from scratch” – leaving you with more mental energy and more time in a tournament game.
  • Many checkmates contain tactical themes such as discoveries, pins, and removal of the guard. Practicing checkmate problems will strengthen those tactical patterns as well.
  • When you practice mates that involve more than one move such as mates-in-two or mates-in-three you develop your calculation and visualization skill. In some ways, this is advantageous because you aren’t spending your resources evaluating resulting positions, so you can isolate the calculation and visualization aspect.

My advocation of this type of practice stems from playing in a big tournament – the New York State Championship Under 1600 section – twenty years ago. I did all of the usual stuff – opening practice, tactics, endgame study. However, I also did 10 checkmate problems daily. Although I can’t attribute my victory solely to checkmate practice – I scored 4.5/5 for first place, I do believe that the training sharpened my tactical eye as well as gave me confidence.

Here is some advice to include checkmate practice into your training regimen:

  • Get a copy of Renaud and Kahn’s The Art of Checkmate. Study it and do the exercises. This will provide you with all of the patterns you will ever need.
  • Then get Polgar’s massive Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations, and Games and go through the checkmate problems therein. This will help reinforce those patterns.
  • You don’t have to dedicate a ton of time to it. After you have absorbed all of the patterns, then occasional reinforcement will maintain this skill and knowledge for you. For example, I do checkmate problems once every couple weeks. However, I do encounter checkmate solutions in my daily tactics training.

I know there are a lot of aspects of chess to study, including openings, middlegame, and the endgame, along with tactics and strategy. Checkmates may seem like an insignificant addition to an already crowded training program. However, if you’ve never taken the time to build up your library of checkmate patterns, you will benefit greatly by doing so.

Here is a video I created with six common checkmate patterns – think of this as an appetizer!

Bryan Castro

Staying Active on Defense

Chess is a game of give and take. If you take the initiative, sometimes you have to give a pawn or some other positional concession. If you take material, often you have to give your opponent counterplay. If you take a square with a pawn, you give your opponent the square next to the pawn. I think you get the idea.

So the question is whether what you take is more valuable than what you give to get it. When you find yourself on the defense, if you haven’t blundered, then your opponent has given you something. The key is for you to stay active and find out what that something is.

In the video here, Paul Keres gives his opponent an attack. In return, his opponent gives him a target (the d4 pawn) and the exchange. That’s enough for Keres.

Enjoy this game with my commentary.

Bryan Castro

Karpov on the Minority Attack

Anatoly Karpov was one of the all time greats. He was known especially for his positional play and accuracy in the endgame. One of the positional techniques he was particularly good at was the minority attack. He has several sparkling victories in which the minority attack was a featured contributor.

In this first example, Karpov saddles his opponent with the characteristic weak pawn. However, in this case, he doesn’t actually win the pawn. However, it’s presence is a constant reminder of the technical flaw in Black’s position, and Karpov engages in an endgame technical melee which ends when his own passed pawn threatens to promote.

In the following game, Karpov shows a couple common themes within the minority attack. First, he trades off his opponent’s light-square bishop. This bishop often defends the weak c-pawn. Second, Karpov brings his queen’s knight to a4, where it can often find a home on the c5 square. In this case, it gets traded off quickly, but Black subsequently loses the weak c-pawn and the game.

In our final example, Karpov shows that the weak pawn doesn’t have to be the c-pawn, as his opponent’s chooses to leave the a-pawn by exchanging first with his c-pawn during the classic minority attack’s b4-b5 advance. Karpov then gives us a master class on the proper use of the rooks in the endgame. Enjoy this video with my commentary on this beautiful game.

Anatoly Karpov is a master at many aspects of chess. However, his skill in executing the minority attack in all of its nuances have given us many masterpieces to study to improve this particular positional plan.

I hope to have given you a good start, but continued study of Karpov’s games will be rewarded both aesthetically and with a better understanding of the minority attack and positional play in general.

Bryan Castro

When to Follow General Principles and When to Ignore Them

“It is the aim of the modern school, not to treat every position according to one general law, but according to the principle inherent in the position”

-Richard Reti

When we start learning chess, we are often given general principles or “rules of thumb” to follow. Here are an example of some general principles we may have learned along the way:

  • In the opening, we should control the center, develop our pieces, and castle fairly early.
  • Don’t move a piece more than once in the first ten moves.
  • In the endgame, your rook should be behind passed pawns, both yours and your opponents.
  • A knight on the rim is dim.
  • When ahead in material, trade pieces but not pawns.
  • When behind in material, trade pawns but not pieces.

You get the idea.

These are very useful in our decision making process because they give us a short-cut and help to speed up decisions. They also give us a means to make evaluations within our positions. All-in-all, it is good to learn these.

However, there are times and situations where general principles should be ignored or at least verified through concrete analysis and calculation. Especially as we get stronger as players, it is important to discern when we should follow specific general principles and when it is correct to deviate.

How do we know when we should do this? Admittedly, I think most of it comes from experience and study. However, here are a few ideas that you can consider during and after your games.

  • When the position offers several viable moves with outcomes resulting in similar evaluations – e.g. one path is not clearly better than another – then following general principles can often provide us with a path to follow.
  • The more critical a position is – the more uneven the evaluations between the best moves and less-good moves – then the more one should rely on concrete analysis.
  • When you have a clear plan that can be backed up by concrete variations that leads to a clear advantage, it is often safe to ignore general principles.
  • After your games, evaluate your decisions. Did you make decisions based on general principles that didn’t apply to that specific situation? Analyze whether your conception of the position was incorrect – e.g. you used the wrong principles to evaluate – or whether you miscalculated – e.g. the principles were correct, but you made an error in calculating the resulting position.
  • Did you make decisions based on concrete variations that would have been better evaluated based on general principles? For example, quiet positions that may require deeper understanding of the positional elements but not necessarily the calculation of forced moves (since there aren’t many).
  • In your opening repertoire, do you select openings that have clear plans and can be played successfully based on general understanding and principles? Or do you play openings that require a lot of memorization and specific moves that don’t necessarily follow general principles? Understanding this is very important to selecting and studying your openings.

To illustrate these points, I’d like to share a game that I think balances the following and use of general principles as well as the selective (and timely) ignoring of such principles.

In the game below, Capablanca aggressively strikes out against his opponent, weakening his own pawn structure while his king remains in the center. However, as we see in the game, it is all part of a grand plan. His opponent, Aron Nimzowitsch, allows an opposite color bishop endgame that general principles lead him to believe he could hold, but Capablanca’s grasp of the specific nature of the position leads him to victory.

In closing, please understand that I believe general principles are very useful and essential. However, we must understand the “when” and “why” of their use and be willing to go against them when the specifics of the position call for it.

Enjoy the game!

Bryan Castro

The Benefits of Studying the Games of Morphy

“In a set match, Morphy would beat anybody alive today… Morphy was perhaps the most accurate chess player who ever lived. He had complete sight of the board and never blundered, in spite of the fact that he played quite rapidly, rarely taking more than five minutes to decide a move.”

Bobby Fischer

I’ve always been a fan of Paul Morphy. Ever since I studied his famous “Opera Game,” I enjoyed his clear attacking style. I think he is a good player for everyone to study, especially beginners.

Here are a few reasons why I think he is an important player to study:

Unlike many players of his era, Morphy set about developing his pieces before attacking. He seemed to value the development of his pieces highly, often sacrificing a pawn or two (as we’ll see in our example) to accelerate the development of his pieces.

Morphy was also a master of creating and sustaining the initiative. In looking at many of his games, I always felt like his opponents were stumbling backwards trying to defend themselves. His superior development of his pieces often aided in this, as well as the poor defensive skills of his opponents during this time period.

Following up from this is his incredible skill in coordinating his pieces – particularly when conducting the attack. When you look at his games, you often see that nearly all of his pieces are working for him. This is especially important for beginners, who often conduct an attack with one (maybe two) pieces.

One other aspect of his games was that although he played the top players of his era, opening theory and defensive techniques haven’t been developed as much as they are now. This means that his opponents made mistakes similar to the ones you and I (and our opponents) might make (unless you’re a master yourself who plays other masters). Sometimes these games are more instructive than watching a subtle positional duel between two of today’s top players.

Paul Morphy was ahead of his time and head and shoulders above his competition. His moves stand the test of time and his play was entirely modern. I think you will find studying his games very rewarding.

Below is a video of one of his masterpieces with my commentary (geared towards beginners). Enjoy!

Bryan Castro

Two Winning Elements in the Endgame

Over the last year or so, I’ve really enjoyed studying the endgame. Part of this I can attribute to GM Nigel Davies, who emphasizes this training in Tiger Chess. Another aspect is that it has given me a new outlook on the opening and the middlegame.

I started to notice this when studying the games of Capablanca. Besides the general positional play that is often considered Capablanca’s strength, I observed that he highly valued the creation of an outside passed pawn in the middlegame. It popped up in one game, then in another, and then again!

After this, a familiar pattern would emerge. He would simplify to just a couple pieces and pawns, and then either win material when his opponent had to sacrifice to stop his passed pawn, or after adept maneuvering of his king, he would break through his opponent’s defenses and his opponent would resign before as Capa’s king was about to escort the passed pawn to promotion.

Here’s an example of this. Capablanca trades in his ouside passed pawn for a winning rook and pawn position.

It helped me to realize that I had to keep two factors in mind during the middlegame – the position of my king and the potential to create passed pawns. Of course, during specific situations other factors might be at play – e.g. an direct attack on my king, minor piece interactions, or opening files or diagonals and others – but I started to keep these two factors in the back of my mind especially when I could foresee a few piece exchanges and simplification of the position.

Here are a few questions to ponder:

  • In your play, do you take into account the subsequent endgame position that might result from exchanges?
  • Are you familiar with different types of endgames – e.g. rook and pawn, pawns on both wings, etc.?
  • Does your opening repertoire include variations where the games often lead to an endgame and are you comfortable in those positions?

I think recognizing these elements in your games as early as possible will help you to plan for the endgame. Besides this, it will also inform your decisions regarding changes in pawn structure as well as determining whether or not you want to exchange certain pieces. Of course, if you seen an opportunity to win the game before that, by all means do.

Here is one of my recent games where I took all of these factors into account. I had blundered some material back to my opponent but because I had considered the endgame much earlier, I had two winning elements – a superior king position and an outside passed pawn.

(Here I include just the endgame, but you can see the whole game in another article I wrote on Better Chess Training).

I hope this article inspires you to persevere in your study of the endgame. Your effort and time will be well rewarded both aesthetically as well as in extra points and half-points in your tournament games.

Bryan Castro

Chess Goals for the New Year

With the New Year coming, it is a great time to review our current plans for chess improvement and perhaps set new goals. In this article, I’d like to offer a few ideas you want to consider when planning for the New Year.

Take Stock

Before setting some goals for the New Year, it is important to figure out your strengths and weaknesses as well as what went well and what didn’t go so well last year. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What aspect of your game improved this year?
  • What was your weakest area this year?
  • What training or study method worked really well for you?
  • What training or study method didn’t really help you?
  • What chess books did you finish?
  • What parts of your opening repertoire do you need to improve?
  • What middlegame concepts did you have trouble with?
  • What endgame positions or principles do you need to study more?

Write down your answers to these questions and any others you may have for yourself. The general objective here is to get a picture of what you should focus your time on in the coming year. For beginning and intermediate players, increasing your knowledge and generally learning more about chess will be the order of the day, but there may be a specific area that lags behind the others.

Focus on Process Goals

We may all have outcome goals such as improving our rating by 100 points or playing the endgame better. Nigel Davies discusses outcome and process goals in another article. These are not bad things to have, but to get there, we need to take action. It is important to develop a process or schedule to achieve these goals. By focusing on the process rather than the outcome, we focus on what we can control.

Using some of the answers from our previous step, we can come up with some process goals.

There are two parts of process goals. First, you have the action to be taken. Second, you have the frequency or schedule. This makes it very easy to know if you’re on the right track or not. I use an Excel Spreadsheet to track key process goals that I have. Here are some of them:

  • 10 minutes of meditation and visualization daily.
  • 7 hours of sleep daily.
  • Tiger Chess courses Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of each week.
  • Review missed Chessity and Chess Tempo problems on Friday of each week.
  • 20 Chessity problems daily.
  • Some form of exercise daily (including active or scheduled recovery days).

Track Your Progress

As I mentioned above, I track my completion of my daily and weekly process goals. I wrote a more detailed article about measuring and tracking your chess, but the general idea is that what you measure will improve. Part of it is psychological – e.g. you want to see “high scores” when you track things.

Here are a few examples of things tracked and my progress. These aren’t meant to impress you, but to illustrate the power of measurement and tracking.

  • I have currently done my tactics training for 70 straight days.
  • I have slept at least 7 hours for 3 straight days, but only about 50% of the days this month. I also average 6 hours of sleep on the days I don’t sleep at least 7 hours.
  • When I started using Chessity in October, my tactics rating was 1774. It is currently 1957, and I’ve crossed over 2000 on three separate occasions, all this month.
  • Since starting Tiger Chess, I have yet to miss my training during the week, but several times the training was completed a day after it was scheduled.

You don’t have to go into as much detail as I do, because I’m kind of a statistics nerd, but the idea is to get an idea of how your doing. It’s also very motivating. For example, I don’t want my tactics training streak to end, so I end up doing it almost first thing when I wake up each day.

Keep a Positive Attitude

After you have set your goals and have started working on your plan, make sure that you stay positive and confident in your progress. Sometimes, we have peaks and valleys when we try to improve at anything. The key is to stay positive during the valleys and remember that we will peak again soon enough.

There has been much research into the power of self-confidence and its effects on performance. With this in mind, here are just a few ideas for you to consider trying.

  • Keep a database or notebook with good moves that you’ve made. Review it regularly or when you need your confidence boosted. Remember that YOU made those moves and you’ll make good moves again.
  • Keep focusing on your process and schedule and remember that the consistency in your training now may not seem to be doing anything, but they will pay dividends. It’s like running a marathon: you may not be able to see the finish line but every step you take must bring you closer to it.
  • Observe and be mindful of how you talk to yourself and what you think about yourself. Think about what you are saying to yourself and ask yourself if this is something you would say to a beloved friend or to your mother – unless you don’t get along with your mother, in which case choose someone else.
  • Forgive yourself for any mistakes or failures you made in the past. Learn from any short-comings, but move on from them emotionally. Stop beating yourself up.

Final Thoughts

As you begin this new year, remember that now is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean. In fact, whether you had a great year or one that you would like to forget, it is a new year whether you like it or not.

I hope you find the advice in this article useful. As you may have noticed, I’ve shared some of my own personal goals and process. If you have a different method or way of organizing yourself, go for it! My way works for me and I’m continually improving and changing parts of it. The key is to get started!

I wish you the best this year and beyond. Hopefully, some of the ideas here will help make this coming year your best yet!

Bryan Castro

The Limits of the Chess Engine for Improvement

Chess Engines: Tool or Trap?

Using chess engines for chess analysis and practice has become very commonplace. Whether you are on an online chess server, internet forum, or even at the tournament hall, discussion of which chess engine one uses or what the latest version of Stockfish is seems to pop up frequently.

However, I think we must be very careful in using our silicon friend too much lest our conversations start to sound like this:

Peter Patzer: Move 23 in the Najdorf Sicilian Sozin line you played is busted. Why do you play this trash?

Wilson Woodpusher: What are you talking about? Blockfish 44.18 says that it’s only +0.32.

Peter Patzer: Oh, my friend, don’t you know? Blockfish is terrible at assessing lines played by Nakamura. You need to use Slomodo 96.32a especially calibrated to analyzing such complex lines. It says it’s +1.2 if you let it run to at least 33 ply!

Wilson Woodpusher: Ah…you are so wise, my friend. What is your rating again?

Peter Patzer: 1500, but Slomodo 96.32a has a rating of 3700!

Wilson Woodpusher: Oh yeah? Let’s have our chess engines play each other.

Peter Patzer: Challenge accepted!

Am I saying that you should never use a chess engine to assist you with chess analysis or practice? No. They can be very useful to check for blunders as well as practicing positions – such as endgames – when you don’t have a partner. However, we should be aware of their limitations and what they can’t do to help you improve your chess.

Chess Engines Don’t Teach

When you look at chess engine analysis, you see a lot of move variations and evaluations of the resulting positions. However, for amateur players, much of this analysis is near useless unless the position involves a tactical blunder or forced win or material.

For example, the engine doesn’t tell you:

  • What pawn levers you are preparing.
  • What positional elements should be prioritized in the position.
  • Why you should trade a specific minor piece or keep another.
  • What the typical plans are in a particular pawn structure.

This knowledge is much more important for you to understand and learn than to know that 23.Bxf6 is +0.13 better than 23.Nxf6 at 33 ply.

Chess Engines Pick Moves THEY Like

When looking at the suggested moves from the output of a chess engine, we must remember a couple things.

The computer doesn’t take into account the sharpness of the position, only the resulting position at the end of its horizon. So although a top move for a computer may end up in an advantageous position with best play, the types of moves that are required to get there may be incredibly difficult for a player – particularly an amateur player – to handle.

As an example, let’s say there are two paths to an advantage:

  • One move leads to an intensely sharp position requiring 5-6 “best” moves that results in a +3.5 evaluation. This might involve
  • One move leads to a comfortable position with several variations that lead to similar positions resulting in a +2.0 evaluation.

Both moves should be sufficient for victory, but which one should you choose? If you’re a computer (or GM Hikaru Nakamura), you might opt for the first choice. If you’re not a computer , you might choose the second move.

Also remember that the computer engine won’t tell you which path is which!

The Engine Won’t Be At Your Side

Finally, if you are mainly an OTB or tournament player – as opposed to a correspondence player – the chess engine won’t be sitting next to you when you are playing. Using the engines too much in analysis will dull your own analytical muscles.

Your ability to calculate and evaluate positions is a perishable skill. If you don’t use it, you will lose it. This is a skill that must be continually developed and practiced – especially for amateurs. However, this is often hard work which is why clicking the chess engine button is so tempting. I urge you not to give in – at least too early.

As I’ve heard taught in many endeavors including music, martial arts, and academics – you will perform the way you practice. If you practice analyzing positions with high effort, you will be able to put out that effort in your games. If you constantly rely on the engines to analyze your positions, you won’t have the habits and technique when it comes time for your most challenging positions.

A Place for Engines

As I said earlier in this article, chess engines have their place. To finish up, where are a few ways I think chess engines can be very helpful.

  • They can be tireless defenders when practicing specific positions, such as technical endgames. Positions that require more practice than memorization, such as King, Bishop, and Knight vs. King (KBN vs. K) work especially well.
  • After you have analyzed a position or game on your own and feel like you’ve exhausted your own abilities, having the chess engine check for obvious errors can be very helpful. Of course, you need to understand why it is an error as well and how you can improve your analysis next time.
  • In discussing this topic with GM Nigel Davies, he noted that he and other strong players use engines for high level opening preparation. However, I would caution amateurs in doing too much of this work, as masters like Nigel have an incredible foundation of knowledge and skill to assist them in understanding and evaluating chess engine output.

The chess engines are here to stay for better or for worse. They can useful in your chess training if used properly, but when in doubt, try not using it and think on your own. Your chess skill will be the better for it.

Bryan Castro