On Studying Chess

All beginning chess players strive to improve their play. Countless books, DVDs and software programs have been written or created with this goal in mind. Many beginners make a point of purchasing the latest books, DVDs and software programs designed to bring them one step closer to mastery. However, many of these beginners are often disappointed with the results they actually achieve. You could try to assign the blame to either the beginner or the creator of the materials used for improvement, but this is counterproductive. Often it’s not the materials available but the way in which those materials are used by the beginner. Therefore, I’m going to offer some guidelines for using the plethora of books, DVDs and software available to the budding chess master.

I’m often approached by parents and my older students who are considering the purchase of the above mentioned improvement aids. While the conversations vary, the end result is always the question, what book, DVD or software program will help improve the person in question’s game? There is also an additional problem that hangs quietly in the air, unspoken but always present, “which one of these choices will garner the quickest results?”

It seems that Western society insists on measuring success in terms of how fast a goal can be achieved. Many people look for short cuts to the mastery of a subject, missing the entire point of mastering something: It takes time and a lot of it! We all know the mathematics of mastery; putting ten thousand plus hours into the endeavor of our choice in order to master it. However, it’s not simply a case of putting in the time. It’s more about how you use that time. Let me give you an example:

When I first started studying chess seriously, I had acquired many bad habits that greatly lowered the quality of my game. One bad habit I had was letting my then rather large ego direct my decision making. I’d purchase a book on improving my opening game skills (which were poor at best). The book suggested that a player at my level stick to a specific group of basic openings. What did I do? Well, I tried to play openings such as the Ruy Lopez because Grandmasters played it. Looking back, I realize how silly this was because rather than take the advice of the book’s author who was well known for his teaching skills, I pandered to my ego, thinking “I’m a brilliant guy so I should be able to master the Ruy Lopez opening in a few weeks (yeah, right). Did I mention I was a bit of a nitwit in my youth? The point I’m trying to make is that you can’t run before you learn how to walk and nowhere does this prove truer than in learning chess. It wasn’t until I had matured a great deal that I was able to use proper study techniques to improve the quality of my play. Here are some brief suggestions from a guy who has made every single mistake regarding the study of chess:

When choosing a book, DVD or software program, chose one that is geared towards the beginner. Titles with the word “beginner” in its title are worthy of consideration. Start the journey to improvement with a few basic texts rather than a full library of chess books. I suggest starting with books because many DVDs will walk you through complex master level games to demonstrate key concepts. If you’re watching a DVD on opening principles, for example, you’ll need to understand the basics of opening principles and algebraic notation. While the DVD may give you a quick explanation of these principles, you’ll get more out of the DVD if you know a little about opening principles and notation. Books are also wonderful because you can easily carry them around with you and no computer skills are required for their use. Make sure to purchase the books from reputable businesses so the authors receive financial compensation for their work!

I suggest children’s chess books for both my younger and older beginning students because you’ll find very clear explanations for topics that often become complicated in books solely geared towards adults. As a beginner, keep it simple. I have learned more about chess from books written for children than books written for adults. Of course, I’ve gotten to the point at which I now can read adult chess books and get something from them, but when I was first starting my journey of chess knowledge, children’s chess books were an enormous help. I still refer to my collection of children’s books from time to time.

Now that you have an idea of where to start your studies what should you study? To play chess well, you need to be an all around player. That means you have to study the opening, middle and endgames. We’ve all played against opponent’s who were better in one phase of the game than another. A player who only studies the opening may be able to give their opponent problems during the opening game but soon becomes lost when they reach the middle game. Beginners should study all three phases of the game equally.

Remember that real improvement takes time and the journey isn’t always a smooth. Using a good plan of study, you’ll see improvement. However, you’ll hit walls during certain phases of your training and it is important to not let this discourage you. Take your time! These walls throw themselves up when you first start exploring a new concept or when you delve into uncharted conceptual waters. Always remember that you can approach a wall in one of two ways; as an insurmountable obstacle never to be scaled or as a challenge to be met. In chess, as in life, we face such challenges regularly and routinely overcome them. When faced with a particularly challenging concept approach it simply. Get to the root of the matter. Exactly what is the challenge? Many beginners never successfully overcome these challenges because they don’t understand them! If starting your study of the opening game, determine the overall goals of the opening such as central control, minor piece development and castling. Define the problem in its simplest terms and then start your study of that problem.

When studying, find a place where distractions are at a minimum. I have an office I lock myself into when I study chess. It is the quietest place in my house. I remove everything from the top of my desk except a chessboard and pieces. When you sit down to study, clear your mind of everything except chess. Look at your study time as a vacation from the problems of the day. This way you’ll look forward to studying because you don’t have to think about anything else. The environment and mental state you’re in can be the deciding factor in how successful your studies are.

Set aside a realistic schedule for studying chess. Start by allotting a small amount of time each day (or every other day) for your studies. It is unrealistic for a beginner to try to put three hours a day into studying chess. Chess can be very taxing on the uninitiated mind. Try thirty minutes each day. On day one study opening principles, on day two study tactics and on day three study the endgame. Keep repeating this schedule.

Most importantly, take your time. You cannot speed through key ideas and concepts. You must carefully consider each and not move on to the next until you’re completely comfortable with the subject matter. Patience is the key to chess improvement. Slow and steady wins the race. This is the briefest of introductions to studying chess. There are many other factors to consider but this will at least point you in the right direction. As for book recommendations, here are a few (it would take two or three articles to address this issue in detail): Anything by Bruce Pandolfini, Richard James or Murray Chandler. Of course, I recommend everything ever written by Nigel to my more advanced students! Here’s a game to enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

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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).