Do It Yourself

“Remember boys, chess can’t be taught, Chess can only be learned,” So said Mikhail Botvinnik, father of the Russian School of Chess. What he meant was that most progress occurs when the student is alone, working through his or her studies. In chess, we often learn best what we learn independently. My fellow chess teachers and coaches might find this an odd statement from a guy that teaches and coaches chess for a living but I prefer my students to be self learners. If I expect students to teach themselves. What’s my role? I’m simply a guide who can answer questions and point students in the right direction. In the end, it’s the student who does all the work.

You really should be a self learner when it comes to chess for two reasons. First, you’ll learn a lot more when trying to work through problems and positions by yourself. Second, do you really want to pay a high hourly rate for something you can do at little cost? Of course you should have access to a teacher to help you along the way, but don’t depend on them for all of your learning.

Improving your chess is a hands on learning experience the same way music is. It’s a combination of theory and practice, or studying and playing. It’s a balancing act between both with one being needed to achieve the other. You can know all the theory in the world but unless you’ve tested that theory out on the board, you’ll never really improve. Shouldn’t knowing theory be enough to make sound decisions any time you play? No! Take the game’s numerous principles into consideration. There are times when principles are bent in order to gain a better position. The principles don’t tell you exactly when to bend them. Only actual play will show you where this works and where it doesn’t. Practice also helps to cement theory into your memory.

As I first mentioned, learning should primarily be an independent process. A student thirsty for chess knowledge and armed with a good chess book is going to learn a lot more working through the book than having me explain the book to them word for word. I have my students work through books and use me to explain ideas they don’t fully understand (only after they work at it for a while). Of course, you have to be motivated to be an independent learner. Many people rely on teachers because the teacher forces the student to adhere to a schedule. However, after paying the hourly rate, the student goes home and studies the teacher’s lesson. Sounds like the student is doing independent study! Most people who fall in love with chess tend to be motivated to learn. They fall under the spell of chess lust. They lust for chess knowledge which is great until they get a bad case of TMI or Too Much Information!

I had to transfer all of my chess teaching stuff to a new laptop this weekend. It took ten hours to transfer roughly 400 GB of books, videos, training software, my own chess writing, etc. I only transferred the most important materials. My first thought when starting the transfer process was, how does anyone learn independently with so many choices of training material? I have my adult students who are new to chess start off with books written for kids. They are not allowed to study adult books until they’ve read three children’s books I recommend. Kid’s books give clear explanations that can easily be grasped. After they’ve gone through the books do we start talking about apps and programs for training. The secret to avoiding a bad case of TMI? Don’t worry about everything available to help you improve. Simply concentrate on where you need to improve and seek advice from someone who can determine where you need to work on your playing. This is where teachers come in. I sit down with my students, play a few games and then analyze those games. This allows me to determine where the student needs work and point them in the right direction. I suggest books or training programs geared towards their level of play at this point.

Surprisingly, a lot of learning is subliminal. A student plays through the games of a master and tries to follow the action on the board. This student sees a move that follows a principle they learned about and may have forgotten. Now that principle is cemented into their memory. The same student might play through a game they lost trying to determine where they went wrong. Even though they might not see the problem move clearly, they subliminally notice other important things about the game that will become part of their playing thought process. We learn a lot more than we think we do. At the age of thirteen, Botvinnik spent countless hours analyzing his games in order to improve.

The self learner should always know why something is actually important. This can get tricky because you often have to read between the lines. Here’s an example of what I mean: The Knight, Bishop and King against lone King endgame. I use this endgame example in my upcoming book. I did a lot of research regarding this type of endgame because it’s tricky. The majority of endgame books I read stated this is an important endgame to know. Really, how many players find themselves in this type of endgame? Not many. Why this endgame is important has to do with piece coordination. You should learn this endgame because it will teach you how to coordinate your pieces which can be helpful during the entire game. The point here is that if you know why something you’re learning is important, you’ll be able to apply it to your play successfully. I’m a big fan of this endgame situation and share it with my students. However, I never teach it in terms of endgame play.

A lot of your learning takes place when you absorb an idea and run with it, trying it out in your games. The great thing about chess is that you can have fun putting you new found knowledge to the test by playing. You learn something and test it out. It doesn’t always work out the first time around, but stick with it. Principled play always wins over unprincipled play. Be a self learner. Seriously, you’ll get more out of your studies. Of course, I’m happy to take your money. However, I’m still going to make you learn on your own. If a chess teacher says you can’t learn the game on your own, there’s something suspicious regarding that teacher’s motives. Try it out. In fact here’s a little self learner homework. Play through this game and find a principle that applies to every move made. In fairness, I did what I’m asking you to do last night. Enjoy!

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).