“Such exercises, involving analyzing and covering up the pages of the grandmaster’s notes, are very beneficial in perfecting the the technique of analysis. If the reader will try it for himself, he will soon realize how effectively it helps him improve.”
–Alexander Kotov in Think Like a Grandmaster
How would you like to have a master sitting next to you, giving you advice as you train? If you could learn what he thought of a position and what variations he considered, would this be helpful to you?
It would be immensely helpful! One way to do this would be to take lessons from a titled player, but sometimes financial limitations or other restraints may limit our ability to take advantage of this excellent resource. However, we can get similar benefits by playing Solitaire Chess.
What is Solitaire Chess?
Solitaire Chess is a training method where you use an annotated game and playing the side of the winner, you decide which move you would make in the situation – aka “Guess the Move.” You see what move the master made, and move on to the next move. Once you are finished with this game, you can compare your moves to that made of the master and study the differences.
This is not an original training method. Kotov refers to a variation of this in his well-known class – Think Like a Grandmaster. I first learned of it 20 years ago when taking a lesson from GM Greg Serper. He highly recommended it as the proper way to study a chess book.
Although it is a well known training method, I would venture to say it is not an often used one by amateur players. It can be both time consuming and mentally taxing. Similarly, it can be hard on the ego as it can reveal how much more we have to learn about chess.
After reading this article, I hope you will be inspired to include it at least occasionally into your chess training regimen.
Solitaire Chess has a lot of benefits to improving your chess:
- It will help you understand how a master player thinks about chess.
- By involving yourself emotionally and intellectually in the game – as opposed to just reading the annotations – you will have a deeper understanding of the positions and ideas.
- Because you are actively engaging the material, your retention of the concepts will be greater.
- It will help you correct your errors in thinking or conceptions of the game as the master “consults” with you on how to look at the positions.
How to Play Solitaire Chess
Here are the steps I use and recommend to play and learn from Solitaire Chess:
- Choose your source game. I recommend a well annotated game that has a lot of text explanations in addition to move variations. You can choose the source game according to you needs. For example, if you want to learn how to be a better attacker, you can use annotated games by Tal or Shirov (both of whom have written very well annotated collections of their games). Similarly, if you want to learn more about positional or endgame play, you can study the games of Karpov or Capablanca.
- Play out the first 10-12 moves. Unless you are studying games from an opening within your repertoire, I recommend playing out the first 10-12 moves to get you into the early middlegame (you can pick a different point if, for example, you are focusing on studying the endgame). What I like to do is find the game in a database on my computer and play it out (programs like Chessbase have functions where you can play out the moves without seeing the game score).
- Think about the positions and record what move you would make for the winner. Once you find your starting point, try to play the position as if it is a tournament game – playing the side of the winner. Even if I have the position on the computer, I often set up a physical board. If you often play at a particular time control, you can time yourself as well. To record the move, I like using a composition notebook and I will often write quick notes about what variations I considered or anything else that will help me remember what I was thinking for reviewing later.
- Play through the rest of the game. After you decide on your move, look at what was actually played in the game. If you guessed correctly, great! If you didn’t, just note the move and play the next one. You want to get through the entire game and then afterwards analyze it. On database programs like Chessbase or SCID, you can enter the move your move as a variation so you can look at it later.
- Review the Game. Once you’ve completed the game, you can then review the annotations made by the author, comparing your thoughts and variations to those of the author. By the way, although it is helpful to use games annotated by the actual winner of the game, any well-annotated game will be helpful. Let’s discuss this step in a little more detail.
Like your own games, you should do a post-mortem analysis of your Solitaire Chess games. here are a few of the key areas you should focus on:
- Moves where you deviated from the master’s play, but had the right idea. Let’s assume for now that for the most part, the master’s moves will be the correct move to make. In this particular case, try to find out why. Perhaps it is a tactical nuance your move allows that the text avoids. If you had the right idea, then analyzing why the master chose differently will be very beneficial to your calculation and assessment skills.
- Moves where you deviated from the master’s play, but had the wrong plan. In these cases, try to understand why the master’s plan is more correct than yours. Many well-annotated games will explain both the strategic and tactical reasons behind their moves (at least at major points) and these explanations will help guide the way.
- Blunders. Of course, sometimes the move you make will lose by tactical means. When this happens, try to understand why. Was it because you overlooked a tactical shot several moves away? Was it because you were inattentive? The answer to why is critical to your improvement. Solitaire Chess as opposed to just solving tactical problems (which is very useful as well) helps train you not just to find tactical shots from your point of view, but also to avoid walking into them.
- Variations within the annotations that you did not consider. When an annotator notes a particular variation (especially if the author is the player of the game), it is important to note whether or not you considered this particular line of play in your Solitaire Chess game. If you did (and you played the inferior move), try to understand why the author evaluated the particular line the way he did. If you didn’t consider it, you may want to think about why that was. Perhaps you did not consider enough candidate moves, or perhaps you stumbled upon the best move early in your calculations. A good annotator doesn’t include variations of little importance, so understanding the difference between the author’s line of thinking and your own will help guide your future analyses.
I wanted to share a recent Solitaire Chess example with you. This particular game was Capablanca’s first encounter against the Marshall Gambit against none other than Frank Marshall. In my Solitaire Chess game, I got White’s 14th move wrong, but got a good lesson in defense and tactics from Capa.
Solitaire Chess is an incredible way to improve your chess. In my opinion, it is the next best thing to having a personal chess coach. You can have the world champions such as Botvinnik, Alekhine, or Tal as your consultant and guide through their greatest games, or you can have a specialist on a specific opening teach you the key lines using illustrative games. As you can see, only your imagination limits how you can use this powerful tool.
Solitaire Chess is time consuming and can be intellectually and emotionally taxing, but it is through this struggle that we grow. This also brings other benefits. Because it is hard to do, not many players will do it – which will give you an advantage if you do. Embrace the struggle and supercharge your chess training.