The Poor Improver

Oh, the poor chess Improver. You know this person, the novice chess player who has learned the rules of the game, as well as some basic tactics and checkmates, but that’s the extent of their game knowledge. Why do I say the poor Improver? Because this chess player wants to improve his or her chess skills but faces a hard road to improvement. The road is hard because it requires work and dedication. However, the journey is made even more difficult due to the vast array of inappropriate training material available. Stop if you’re thinking that this last statement is ridiculous because it’s true! I know that, thanks to technology, improvers have a seemingly endless source of training options available to them. There are books, DVDs and countless software programs to help them get better at chess. It’s all wonderful and should be propelling players towards mastery. There’s just one problem. For the Improver there isn’t a lot of truly suitable material. The majority of training material is simply too advanced for them!

I don’t normally say this but I am a bit of an authority on this dilemma. Teaching and coaching beginners and Improvers, it’s my job to dig through all the available material out there and find training aids that are suitable for my students. Teaching and coaching is my full time occupation and something I love doing. To keep doing what I love to do, I have to give my students the best education I can so I examine a plethora of training aids to do so. What I’ve discovered is a nightmarish world in which the improver rarely gets the needed outside training support. While some who teach chess might smile because, after all, it forces the student back to their teacher for further improvement (more money for the teacher), I like my students to improve on their own. Here’s what I mean about the nightmarish world of chess self improvement:

You’re a novice Improver, one who knows the bare basics. You decided to pick up a physical catalog from one of the big chess supply businesses or go online and check out their training aids. You decide to look at books and DVDs. You see that the books and DVDs are all geared towards players within a set rating range, such as 1000 to 1400 (the ranges go up much higher). You’re at a rating of roughly 1000 and mutter to yourself “I’ll get this book because the caption says it’s good for players rated between 1000 and 1400. You order the book and, after it arrives, open it up to start improving. Within three pages, you realize it’s way over your head, requiring a more sophisticated skill set to get anything accomplished. Welcome to the world of self improvement!

This common problem arises because improves don’t realize that there is a huge skill set difference between a a player with a rating of 1000 and a player with a rating of 1400. While the 1400 rated player might sail through the book in question, the 1000 rated player will struggle. In a perfect world, an exact rating system would be applied to chess books. “This book is geared towards the player with a rating of exactly 1000.” However, this is unrealistic. Publishers have to sell their chess books to a broader chess playing audience in order to stay in business. Therefore, publishers use a rating range. So what’s the Improver to do?

My suggestion, one I give to all my adult students in this position, is to use books written for junior players. When I say junior players, I’m not talking about small children but kids between the age of 12 and 15. The books I recommend give clear, concise explanations that a 12 year old could understand, or a befuddled Improver. By using these books, you’ll gain a solid grasp of the subject matter that allows you to improve your skill set. Two titles that come to mind are “Winning Chess Tactics for Kids” and “Winning Chess Strategies for Kids,” both by Jeff Coakley. He’s also written other books in this series. What I like about his books are that they explain key concepts very clearly because they’re written for a younger reader, and the game positions he uses are to the point. These books serve as excellent stepping stones that will make working with more complicated adult chess books on the same subject much easier. If you feel embarrassed carrying around a kid’s chess book, make a paper book cover and write (in thick black ink) “The Super Grandmaster’s Advanced Guide to Extremely Complex Tactics.” If you feel silly about doing this, you should. There’s nothing wrong with any book that helps you improve (even books written for kids). If you want to get better at chess do what every it takes, within reason!

Now for those DVDs! DVDs employ a similar rating system with similar pitfalls for the Improver. The advantage to DVDs for many players is the visual aspect. Many players do better with animated pieces moving about the chessboard on their computer when it comes to learning. Here, you also have to be careful because even a rating range of 300 points can make comprehension difficult for the player on the lower end of the rating range. My first suggestion is to research the person lecturing on the DVD. Youtube is an excellent place to vet your electronic chess coach. Simply type in the person in question’s name on Youtube and watch a few clips. Ask yourself, did I get anything out of this clip or did it go over my head? If you want to cut to the chase, check out Andrew Martin and Nigel Davies. Both provide useful information in clear and concise ways. For example, Andrew Martin’s Winning Chess provides the Improver with really clear explanations regarding good overall play. I’m also a huge fan of Nigel’s Tricks and Traps series because it explains the mechanics of tricks and traps early in the game, allowing you to use them and better yet, avoid them. If you’re looking for a basic opening to learn, avoid the more varietal and complex opens, such as The Ruy Lopez or The Sicilian Defense and opt for simpler openings such as The Italian Opening. You can’t learn to run until you learn to walk! At least with DVDs you have the option of sampling them online before purchasing them.

Now for training software! Here, the Improver stands a better chance of improving! As with the other aids for self learning, you have to do some research. Training software also uses the same rating ranges. However, I’ve found that the range tends to favor the player on the lower end of the spectrum. Peshka (ChessOk) has some good programs geared towards the low end Improver, such as their Mate In One and Easy Ways of Taking Pawns and Pieces. While these are really simple, they help you develop your chess eye! They also have a Mate in Two, Mate in Three and tactical training programs that are good. Again do your research. Chess King (also by the Peshka folks) has three good Tactics Training software programs. There are many other programs to consider as well. Training software tends to gear itself (for the most part) to lower level players.

When choosing a training aid, the more research you put into your potential purchase, the less likely you end up with something geared towards a master level player. Ask around. Go onto a chess forum (something I never thought I’d suggest) and ask other improvers what’s worked for them. With all training aids, go through the information at least two or three times. I have gone through Chessbase Training DVDs at least three times. Why? Because the more I work through them the more knowledge I gain. You’d be surprised at how much you miss the first time through. You only discover this fact by going through the DVD again and again, where you pick up more and more.

You don’t go out and buy the first car you see and you shouldn’t go out and purchase the first training aid you run into. Do the research. While you can find a great deal of good training videos on Youtube, you have to remember that anyone can claim to be a chess guru online. Google the name of someone claiming to have a great training video and see what qualifies them to make that claim. Do your homework. Beware titles like “Grandmaster Secrets for Beginners” and “Instant Chess Mastery.” If it sounds too good to be true then it is! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

This entry was posted in Articles, Children's Chess, Hugh Patterson on by .

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).