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Optimize Your Chess Training

Question and Improve Your Chess

I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

-Rudyard Kipling

Optimizing isn’t about find the “best” training method – as a best method probably doesn’t exist. Instead, it is about constant improvement – both adding what is useful and stripping away what is outdated or less relevant.

To do this, it is essential to regularly and systematically question what we are doing, how we are doing it, and why.


Choosing what to study is essential to a successful training program. In general, as you get stronger, your study materials will have to be more specific to your needs. For beginners, study materials need to be broad and more general as there is a lot to learn. Here are a couple questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you studying games and positions that occur in your opening repertoire?
  • Are you studying concepts that target areas of need – e.g. your weaknesses?
  • Are you studying at a level that is appropriate for you – not too hard and not too easy?

When and Where

When and where you study is also important. Despite anecdotes of Botvinnik training with someone puffing cigerette smoke in his face, for the most part studying in a comfortable environment is recommended. Similarly studying when you are alert is better than when you are groggy or distracted. Consider the following:

  • Do you have a specific place in your home where you study?
  • If you study on your computer, do you shut off programs like Twitter and Facebook?
  • Do you study at a time when you are relatively free from distractions – e.g. when children are asleep?


The attitude and focus you bring to your training and study is also important. The more you are focused during your training sessions, the more you will absorb and remember. Also, studying actively – where you are asking yourself questions and trying to make connections with your previous knowledge – will help you apply what you learn to your games. Finally, going into a session with clear goals and objectives will help you measure the effectiveness of your training sessions. Ask yourself the following:

  • Do I know what I want to achieve in my upcoming training session?
  • Am I focused? Is my mind on other things other than my study material?
  • Am I positive about my progress and training?
  • Am I making connections between what I am learning now and the structures and concepts I have learned in the past?


Besides your own efforts, who you play and converse with about chess has an effect on your progress. Playing on average slightly stronger players seems to yield the best results. If you play players you can never beat, you will be discouraged and be unable to practice the technique of winning a won game. If you play predominantly weaker players, you will not be punished for your mistakes – and therefore not learn from them. I wrote a more detailed article about who to play on

Besides people you play against, who refers to the mentors and coaches you employ to assist you in your game. Like learning materials such as books and videos, different chess coaches and mentors have different value in terms of their effectiveness. It is not necessarily the quality of the coaching, but also the personality fit that is important. In general, you want someone you get along with, but also someone who can clearly disseminate the material and concepts that you need to improve. Some of the best mentors are not necessarily professional players, but stronger players who can explain concepts well. As you get stronger, you may require more specific assistance in certain areas such as opening preparation or psychology.


Perhaps the most important question you need to ask yourself is “Why?” Why do you play chess? Why do you want to get better? Here are a few implications of this question (as well as a couple more questions):

  • If chess is a recreational release from the stress of everyday life, then playing “fun” openings like various gambits and offbeat openings may be for you.
  • Do you plan on playing in open tournaments over-the-board or mainly online? What implications does this have on the training and openings you choose?
  • Is finding the “truth” of a position important to you? If so, playing mainline openings following the latest theory may be more relevant to you.


Perhaps this article uncovered more questions than it answered. You don’t have to make wholesale changes to the way you study chess. However, using these questions will help you to gradually improve your routine and practices. Question by question, answer by answer, day by day, you will see your progress as you employ the six honest serving-men: What, When, Where, How, Who, and Why.

Bryan Castro

Queen’s Gambit Declined Declined

1. P-Q4 P-Q4 leads to nothing.
– Bobby Fischer

I play much better than I did 30 years ago when my rating was higher. I depended more on memorization 30 years ago than I do now.

Returning with White from 1. g3 to my love of long ago 1. d4 I find that I sometimes lose the thread of the internal logic of that opening.

In a way that’s good, because I then have to work out precisely why tactically and positionally to play moves formerly played on visual beauty or on faith.

In today’s game, it certainly occurred to me during the game that in the old days I would have played 7. Qc2 instead of 7. Rc1. 7. Rc1 was a “safety”, taking refuge in a more familiar position.

Beyond memorization, I did imbibe the spirit of the Queen’s Gambit Declined, so it’s disappointing that I didn’t mobilize with 12. Qe2 etc. before proceeding with e3-e4. Apparently my Queen’s Gambit Declined has itself declined somewhat and needs brushing up. Nonetheless, my plan obtained an even game.

Luckily for me, after I began to drift slightly with 27. g4 my opponent overlooked my blunderous 41. Kg5?? which is tantamount to self-mate.

Jacques Delaguerre

Transforming An Advantage

Having a particular advantage is not always enough to win at chess. Sometimes you need to transform it into a different type of advantage in order to win. Here are some examples:

Relinquishing material for a decisive penetration

White has an outside passed pawn but that alone is not enough to win. But he can simply relinquish it by playing Kd6 in order to penetrate on the other side of the board with his king. This leads to simple win.

Lead in development transformed into strong attack (Morphy against Carl)

A lead in development is a dynamic advantage which evaporates with time if not used. Here Morphy had a lead in development which was quite usual with him! He had chosen to sacrifice a piece in order to convert his development advantage into a strong attack. On the other moving the bishop to d3 or e2 leads to satisfactory game for Black after 10…Nbd7. Here is the whole annotated game.

Transforming a queenside majority into a material advantage (Marshall against Capablanca)

It was Steinitz who considered a queenside majority an advantage due to its potential for creating an outside passed pawn. The example below shows Capablanca’s fine technique in transforming his queenside majority into a material advantage.

Ashvin Chauhan

Sinquefield Cup

My son and I have been watching the Chess24 video commentary on the Sinquefield Cup and very entertaining it has been too. I don’t follow top level chess too closely but this may now change.

Something that has interested me has been the recent relative fortunes of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Anish Giri. They are both extraordinary talents yet Vachier-Lagrave seems to be breaking through to a higher level whilst Giri has been struggling.

There could be many reasons why this is so but I wonder if it’s because the Frenchman has a clear chess identity, a dynamic player with similarities to Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. With Giri on the other hand I don’t really see that, certainly he’s a brilliant tactician but the cautious way he lays out his game gives little opportunity for this to shine through. Of course he has plenty of time to develop and suspect that everyone will struggle with him when this happens.

Here meanwhile is a video of round one:

Nigel Davies


The solution to last Monday’s problem is that White can get a big advantage by playing 1. Qb5! This is much better than 1. Qxb6 which also leads to an advantage.

After 1. Qb5 the Black King is trapped in the centre, with all of White’s pieces attacking it.

This week’s problem is about how to effect a breakthrough.

With good positional play, we can increase the pressure on our opponent’s position. But sometimes it can be hard to breakthrough.

One method is zugzwang where we force our opponent to move away one his key pieces.

Another method is to sacrifice , which will also force our opponent to move something he doesn’t want to move.

In this week’s problem, it is obvious that White has a good position, but how can he make a breakthrough?

Steven Carr

Chess Doesn’t Make Kids Smarter

Perhaps you saw the recent headlines here in the UK. It’s now official that chess doesn’t make kids smarter. Before I look at this more closely I’d like to take you back in time to 1993.

At a concert in leafy suburban Richmond, the then Mayor of Richmond, Anne Summers, met a successful local businessman, Stanley Grundy. Stanley had just read an article claiming that chess made kids smarter, based on this paper. He offered to provide financial support for a project to encourage chess in schools in Richmond, and so the Richmond Chess Initiative was born. If you have any experience in reading and assessing scientific papers you’ll be able to pick lots of holes in the validity of the research, but for now we’ll let that be. In Richmond, unlike in other parts of the world, there’s comparatively little scope for making kids smarter. It’s an affluent area of London with many bright kids with parents who are prepared to support them academically and ambitious for them to be successful. The RCI was successful for several years. More schools started after-school chess clubs, players from Richmond schools excelled nationally in both individual and team events, we ran an annual inter-schools championship which attracted several hundred players, and even ran two international events. Looking at the overall standard of play in the school clubs, though, it didn’t seem to me that chess was making kids smarter. Stanley wanted to run a study in Richmond, but the resources were not available. He was unwilling to listen to my objections that there’s a very big different between putting chess on the curriculum and running after-school clubs for kids who, for the most part, already know how the pieces move. Eventually the RCI started to wither away: schools became less interested, numbers of participants in our tournaments declined and Stanley’s money was running out. But we’re still there, running Richmond Junior Club and putting chess teachers into after-school clubs in the area.

Since then there has been much more research on the subject, with most studies showing positive results for chess improving kids’ mathematical abilities. You’ll find a very useful summary here.

Moving forward, the chess education charity Chess in Schools and Communities decided to commission their own study, the results of which have just been published. To their surprise, but not entirely to my surprise, the results were negative. This was how the press reported it.

Well, there’s a lot to say. First of all, it’s evident that the Daily Telegraph journalist hadn’t actually read the report. The survey had nothing at all to do with ‘pushy parents sending their children to chess classes’ but involved kids in deprived areas learning chess on the curriculum. I was in fact responsible for the original CSC curriculum, although it was never the curriculum I would have chosen to write, but I’m not sure to what extent if any this was used in the study.

So why wasn’t I surprised that the results showed no correlation between chess instruction and academic performance? Firstly, many of the studies showing positive results were not based on kids learning how the pieces move fairly quickly and then playing semi-competitive games, but involved kids using subsets of the board, pieces and rules to develop thinking and problem solving skills. While there is much that is excellent about CSC, there has always, it seems to me, been a conflict between two very different aims which would involve approaching chess in very different ways: chess as a non-competitive learning tool and chess as a competitive activity, and they’ve been trying to do both at the same time instead of just concentrating on one aim. The second reason for my lack of surprise was that the testing took place a year after the completion of the study, rather than immediately afterwards. It seems reasonable to me to assume that, because most of the kids enjoy their chess lessons, this will make them happier and more confident in the short term, but that this effect would gradually wear off.

Perhaps now we can take a different approach to chess and stop making dubious claims about chess making kids smarter. I’d go along with the two education experts quoted by the Daily Telegraph. Christopher McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, with whom I agree about both Mozart and chess: “Children should play chess and listen to Mozart for pleasure and as an antidote to the widespread addiction to digital technology and social media sites. Parental encouragement of their offspring should stretch beyond concerns about test marks to a love of what it means to be civilised and that includes Mozart and chess and lots of other things.” Or Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, the charity which carried out the report: “Teach chess for its own sake – for its intrinsic value and the enjoyment pupils gain from it.”

Next time I’ll consider how chess organisations might take a different approach to promoting chess. If you’ve been following my articles over the past couple of years you’ll have heard a lot of it before, but now seems a good time to repeat it.

But before then, your homework for the week is to go away and read the complete report, which you’ll find (although I’m puzzled as to why the first two conclusions, at least at the time of writing, appear to be identical) here.

Richard James

Know Your Enemy

Actually, your opponent! Here’s what I mean: When given the chance you should learn a bit about your opponent or potential opponent’s playing abilities. Professionals do this to a high degree. Why should you? Think of it like this: Imagine you’re going to drive in an automobile race of some sort. You’re given no details whatsoever and show up with your old 1983 Honda only to discover that it’s a Formula One race. In chess, we study our opponent’s game so we know what we’re going up against. Why should you bother as an average player? Read on!

Professionals players carefully study the games of those they’re going to play. They learn what openings their opponent’s are going to employ, type of position (open, closed, etc) favored by the opposition and so on. The professional does research. They do so in order to increase their ability to win when facing a particular opponent of equal or greater strength. We all do this outside of chess. When you’re facing a test in school, you study or prepare for it. When you drive somewhere you’ve never been before, you prepare by studying a map.

Of course, it can be a bit more difficult for beginners to prepare for a game against other beginners because of a lack of recorded games. Serious players play in rated tournaments which mean that their games are recorded. By accessing those games, one can study the playing style of a potential opponent. Since beginners often don’t record their games, it’s more difficult to assess their playing abilities. However, there are a few things you can do to get to know your opponent.

The first thing to do is to hang out at a place they play, be it a chess club or local cafe, and watch their games. Of course, you don’t want to march up and announce “I want to play you so I’m here to study your games.” However, it’s not unusual for people to stand around watching chess games, so don’t feel uncomfortable doing so. I watch potential opponents play before I sit down with them. It’s called doing your homework or due diligence.

Watching an opponent playing is only half the battle. The other half is determining the details, such as the openings they favor for both black and white. Make a mental note of the opening they employ. Then go home and study that opening. This gets you prepared from move one. Most beginning or novice players tend to keep it simple, playing openings that don’t require a lot of preparation. However, if they try to tackle more complex openings such as the Ruy Lopez or Sicilian Defense, they often leave themselves vulnerable due to their lack of knowledge regarding the complexity of these openings. This translates to potential mistakes on their part. Note their weaknesses, such as when they make an off or bad move during the opening and how the opposition responds. Every small crumb of knowledge can be put together to create an advantage.

During the middle game, watch to see if they employ sound tactics. This can be a telling sign! If the player your watching is better at tactics than you, plan on trying to keep the position closed in order to remove any potential tactical positions. The key here is to close the position. Too often, novice players who find tactical plays can only do so when the position is wide open because they tend to favor long distance pieces such as the Bishops, Rooks and Queens. Make a mental note of what piece or pieces they favor. Every chess player has a piece of two they favor because they know how to use them well. It’s all in the details!

Endgame play is an area most novice players have limited experience with because most of their games conclude long before the endgame. I’ve seen players take down a stronger opponent in the endgame because of this. Novice players tend to concentrate on middle-game tactics. Therefore, if you get the opportunity to trade down to an endgame, provided you’ve done some endgame studies, do so.

Then there’s the psychological aspect to the opposition. Is your potential opponent a show off who takes wild chances? You’d be surprised how many novice players can succumb to their egos by taking big risks. The premature attack is a common mistake made by novice players. They launch an attack on the f7 (or f2) pawn thinking that trading a Bishop and Knight for your f pawn and Rook (after castling King-side) is good for them during the opening. Don’t be afraid to make that trade of material because you will have the minor piece majority which is crucial during the opening. If your potential opponent launches early attacks, make a mental note of the pieces used so you can look for this pattern early when you play them.

Watch for tricks and traps when observing games. Tricks and traps are the bread and butter of beginning or novice players. When you see a player executing a trick or trap, note the set up. When you get home, research it and see how to avoid it. More often than not, the player employing the trick or trap will use it repeatedly so expect it when you sit down to play them. I don’t suggest learning your own tricks and traps to use against them because good principled play trumps tricky play. However, you should know how to defend against tricks and traps.

You can learn a great deal from watching the games of others, not just top level games but the games of those players you encounter. Just because someone isn’t a titled player doesn’t mean they can’t come up with some stunning ideas that will help you. You have to keep your eyes open! I watch the games of my students not just because I’m their teacher and coach but because they sometimes come up with great stuff that I can use in my own playing. So your homework for the week is to go out and do some scouting. Go to your local chess haunt and observe someone. See what you can learn from a game or two of theirs. Do some prep work and then challenge them. You’d be surprised at how much it will help. Here’s a game until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Learning From The British Championship

There’s still a game to go in this year’s British Championship but it’s been a fascinating event. Most of all the presence of Michael Adams, a top class GM who has successfully competed against the best players in the World, has provided many great lessons. It’s interested to watch the games as they unfold because you can then try and guess the move and get a sense of the important decisions by the amount of time taken.

The following game was a vital one as Adams was pitted against the number two seed, David Howell. Adams won a tough game shown here with commentary by International Master Andrew Martin:

Nigel Davies

Choking in the Clinch

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.
-Ernest Lawrence Thayer, “Casey at the Bat” ago on a programming team I had a co-worker, “Bob”,  a brilliant control engineer and programmer. He had one weakness: he could easily freeze up during debugging.

Bob would call me into his office, his voice quavering and with tears in his eyes, “Please help me! I’ve been on it for hours and I can’t find the bug!”

“No problem!” I always replied, because truly it was no very great problem. I had learned how to debug with Bob. He’d “drive” (sit at the screen and operate the keyboard and mouse) and I’d navigate. “Show me your code … okay, let’s follow this function down … no, let’s back up and look at the next statement …”

It didn’t really matter, I would just casually and aimlessly walk him around his code until I sensed sensitivity. “Jacques, we’ve been over this, why are we going to that statement again?” As soon as I sensed touchiness, I’d bear down. “Let’s look at this again …” “I told you, we looked at that!” Bob would almost shout, and when he was ready to explode with rage I knew we had closed in on the bug. It worked like a charm, every time.

Last week, I came home after narrowly failing to win the second tournament in a row. In both tournaments, I had choked in the clinch, dispatching with finesse my quality opponents, only to lose both times in the last round to a lucky woodpusher. Why? Why?

The wife, no chessplayer she, setting out dinner that night opined casually, “Maybe you have trouble handling the pressure?”

“No, that’s not it,” I said angrily, and then I thought of Bob.

Jacques Delaguerre

The Passed Pawn Blockade

In general blockading is a very rich concept. Some opening systems are designed around the concept of blockading. For example in the Gruenfeld Exchange Variation one of Black’s strategies is to blockade a White passed d-pawn and simultaneously try to roll his queen side pawns forward. Meanwhile the following variation of the French Defense demonstrates the importance of blockade in order to limit the activity of the opponent’s pieces: 1. e4 e6 2. Nf3 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. e5 Nfd7 5. d4 c5 6. dxc5 Nc6 7. Bf4 Bxc5 8. Bd3 f6 9. exf6 Nxf6 10. O-O O-O 11. Ne5 blockading the e5 square.

In this article, we will deal with blockade in relation to passed pawns only.

Q: Which piece is the best blockader of the passed pawn?

A: Usually a piece whose activity can’t be restricted by the passer is the best one, therefore knights and Bishops are good blockaders and in the endgame the king turns to be a very effective blockader. Though, it is not necessarily true every time.

Here is an instructive example that illustrates the blockade and how to fight against a blockading strategy.

Max Euwe against Herman Pilnik in 1950

Q: How would you proceed with the Black pieces?
A: In the game Black played 12…Nc4 with the idea of …Nd6 which not only improves knight’s placement but also blocks White’s passed pawn.

Q: How should White fight against Black’s strategy?
A: White strategy should be to roll the d-pawn down the board so the first step should be to remove the blockade on d6.

Here are two options:
A) 13.Nb5 which can be met by Nc7!.
B) 13. f4 this is bit deep idea of removing the blockade by rolling the pawn to e5.
One should check both ideas deeply before proceeding and they might also be played later on.

In the game, White played in another way:

13. b3?!

There is nothing wrong with this move but it does not address the key issue of how to advance White’s d-pawn.

13…Nd6 14.Be3 b6 15.Qd2 Re8 16.f4

The idea mentioned above.

16…Nc7 17.Rf2 exf4

In view of the strong hold on e5 that Black gets.

18.Bxf4 Ba6 19. Re1

19.Bxd6 is bad because of 19…Qxd6 20. Rc1 (20. Qf4 is blunder due to the pin along the long diagonal.) 20…Re7! (Vacating the e8 square for knight.)
21.Qf4 Ne8! with a strong blockade on d6 and strong hold on e5. Black has the upper hand here.


Again with a nice grip over e5 and d6 squares. Black stands better if not winning, here is the rest of the game in case you’re interested.

Ashvin Chuahan