Dan’s Your Man

Regular readers will probably be aware of my view that most chess instruction, particularly at lower levels, is, at best, misguided.

One shining exception to this, though, is Dan Heisman. If you’re an adult novice (up to, say 1600 strength), you should certainly look at his materials.

He sums up his principles in three words: Slow, Safe, Active. The three show-stoppers.

‘Slow’ is to do with time management: at this level most players move much too fast, while others take far too long over moves which are either obvious or non-critical. I’d add that problems with time management happen at all levels. Off the top of my head I can think of an English IM who plays extremely quickly, while one of England’s top GMs regularly gets into severe time trouble.

‘Safe’ refers to basic tactics. It’s partly keeping your pieces safe but also not missing simple opportunities to win pieces. Heisman’s choice of word is interesting: he’s concentrating on the idea of not making mistakes rather than finding good moves.

‘Active’ concerns piece activity. Put your pieces on active squares. Use all your pieces, not just some of them.

The three show-stoppers can be extended to the Big Five. The additions are Thinking Process, how you decide which move to make, and General Principles/Guidelines, and you know what they are. Nothing, you’ll notice, about openings, endings, complex analysis.

The only two of these five which require specific study are Safety and General Principles/Guidelines, which you can find in Dan’s books or on his website.

This bears little relation to what most teachers seem to teach at this level, and also bears little relation to what most students think they want.

I sometimes tell my pupils that I’m not like other teachers. Most chess teachers are strong players who play lots of brilliant moves and will teach you how to play brilliant moves yourself. I’m a bad player, even though I have a reasonable grade: I spend most of my games desperately trying to avoid blunders and have never knowingly played a brilliant move in my life. I won’t show you how to play brilliant moves but I’ll try to help you to stop playing bad moves.

There are two types of mistake, not just in chess but in everything. Mistakes you make because something is too hard for you. Perhaps you didn’t know the opening well enough, the tactics were too deep for you, you didn’t understand how to play the ending. You can learn from these mistakes and move forward in your chess. There are also the mistakes you shouldn’t have made. You’d forgotten the opening. You missed a simple tactic. You played too fast. I don’t know about you, but most of my chess mistakes come into the second category. Most chess teachers, though, just concentrate on the first type of mistake, and most students think what they need is more chess information rather than techniques to avoid unnecessary mistakes.

If you’re interested in seeing Dan’s materials you could start by visiting his website. He writes articles for chess.com and produces videos for the Internet Chess Club, at least some of which are available for free on YouTube. His Novice Nook articles at Chess Café are behind a paywall, but you’ll also find many of them in his book A Guide To Chess Improvement, published by Everyman Chess. You can also follow him on Twitter where you can read his Chess Tip of the Day. His tip for December 29 sums up much of his philosophy.

“In math it would be obvious that you want to learn to multiply before doing geometry or trigonometry. But in chess so many worry about subtle things before mastering important basics like how to consistently make safe moves, or avoiding trades when behind material.”

I’d just add that there’s a big difference between teaching adults of about 800-1000 strength and teaching 7-year-old children of the same strength. For example, the kids will play too fast because of their immature thinking processes, so the two most important things are safety and thinking process, followed by activity, which they can usually pick up quickly. But the basic principle of doing simple things well and avoiding careless mistakes is still there.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.