Category Archives: Nigel Davies

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


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


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


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 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


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


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


Making It As A Chess Professional

Some strong players often ask me about making a living from chess; they’ve worked hard on improving their game but then discover that it doesn’t pay the rent. At one time titled players were supported by the state, especially in eastern Europe, but those days are long gone. So what are they to do?

Well let’s assume that we’re not talking about one of the top ten players in the World who tend to do pretty well in terms of appearance fees and prize money. Can lesser lights make a living from playing alone? Maybe, but it certainly helps if they don’t mind sleeping on the odd park bench whilst waiting for their bus back from Barcelona. And they’d need to have a friendly disposition that means teams and tournament organizers will want them around.

There are of course activities such as teaching chess or writing about it but these require some other highly developed skill sets. Writing openings books full of variations and just a few words is no longer an option, computer databases made them obsolete. So you have to be able to string quite a few words together whilst not sending the reader to sleep.

Teaching is, if anything, even harder than writing well, it also involves lucid explanation but you also have to put yourself in the position of the student. People learn in very different ways and you have to be able to present things in a way that they can grasp. This isn’t easy at all, especially if you’re teaching people with a different learning style to your own.

Are there ways to combine chess with a regular job? Indeed there are, but again it isn’t easy. A number of strong players were contract computer programmers and would try to work part of the year and play chess for the rest of it. But the golden era of computer contracting seemed to come to an end when the danger of the Millennium Bug subsided.

Being a school teacher was traditionally a good option for chess players with the long holidays making it possible to play in tournaments. But this too has been harder of late because of the amount of work teachers must do during the holidays, for example redesigning the syllabus they’re teaching or marking.

I think this all goes to explain the rise of internet chess and why many strong players have stopped playing. Many of the UK’s Grandmasters are not currently playing; it takes time and effort to maintain one’s playing chess and without any kind of reward (financial or some new achievement) being possible then why bother? I too have joined their ranks, though I do spend a lot of my time on chess every week and play a bit on the internet.

Here anyway is a rousing performance by one of the UK’s absent GMs, James Howell. Apparently he decided that there wasn’t much of a future in chess, gave all his books away and just stopped. As you can see, he was a good player:

Nigel Davies


Avoiding Stagnation By Playing Something New

People are often looking for an answer to their ‘repertoire problems’ and can be delighted when they discover something simple to play, such as the London System. But after a while a new problem can occur, that of stagnation. They’ve reached a point where they know what they’re doing but the mind is no longer being engaged. This means that it’s time for a change.

For this very reason Bent Larsen used to like to change his openings every couple of years, it helped keep him interested. And it also helped him take his opponents off guard when they were expecting him to play something else.

Boris Ivkov once had to prepare for Larsen in a match and spent a many hours studying one of Larsen’s favorites, Bird’s Opening. Unfortunately for him Larsen didn’t play it, but rather than let all this hard work go to waste he decided to play it himself.

It’s interesting that Larsen not only kept himself fresh but helped Ivkov to do so too:

Nigel Davies


Talent Identification

Very often we hear about ‘talented’ players, which usually coincides with their position on an age/rating chart. Yet years of talent watching have made me deeply skeptical about the value of this simple approach, all too often they fail to develop whilst others seem to come from nowhere and hit the top in their teens.

So it was interesting to learn last week that soccer clubs have invested massive resources into identifying genuine talent, and this is often not those who shine early on. Early physical maturation is by far the most valuable trait for early success, but other kids will catch up with them later. This leaves other considerations, which seem surprisingly subtle and complex. It’s enough to note that Real Madrid Graduate School is offering a master’s degree in talent identification and development in soccer.

What should be the criterium for assessing real chess talent? Expert opinion still seems divided on the matter but here are a few educated guesses about what to look for and what we should be wary of:

Signs Of Talent And Future Success

1) An ability to solve tactical puzzles.
2) Delayed physical and mental maturation.
3) An ability for mental arithmetic.
4) A strong memory.
5) A fascination with puzzles and board games.
6) An ability to focus on one thing for extended periods of time.
7) Musicians, lawyers and mathematicians among relatives.
8) A family that respects art forms such as chess.

Signs That Success May Be Fleeting

1) Physical and mental maturity for their age.
2) Strong competitive traits which descend into gamesmanship.
3) Greater success in tournaments than might be indicated by problem solving ability.
4) An interest in boisterous physical pursuits.
5) A poor reaction to losses.
6) A lack of patience with studying chess.
7) Play that shows evidence of result orientated coaching, for example playing for tricks.
8) A family that sees chess as a stepping stone to a few trophies and IQ points.

Nigel Davies