Theory and Practice

Improving your game requires effort in the form of studying. The greater the effort, the greater the improvement. No one is born with a chess gene that allows them to play like a Grandmaster from moment they first sit down at a chess board. We get better at chess though hard work. Like mastering a musical instrument, mastering chess requires a balance of theory and practice. Favoring one over the other can have a negative effect on your game. The balance of theory and practice is crucial if you wish to improve your playing ability. Theory and practice are the Yin and Yang of chess. An even balance of the two is the key that unlocks the gate that allows you to start your journey along the road to mastery.

This idea of carefully balancing theory and practice has been discussed and addressed in many books and countless articles, yet many serious beginners and intermediate chess players fail to balance their use of these two concepts. In fact, one of the reasons I’m addressing this issue is because many beginners I work with have a problem with balancing the two. Lets start off by defining, in chess terms, these two concepts.

To make things simple, I’ll define “theory,” as it relates to chess, as the study of the game and its subsequent principles. Therefore, the opening principles I’ve written about in past articles, can be considered theory. We study theory, the opening principles for example, to improve our opening game. We learn about these opening principles through books and DVDs. In reading/watching these books and DVDs, we are studying specific aspects of the game (specific theories), such as the opening. In order to apply a specific theory to your game you must first study it.

Practice, on the other hand, is actually playing chess. Like learning how to play a musical instrument, the novice chess player must practice his or her playing in order to progress or improve. You cannot master a musical instrument without practice and the same holds true for chess (or anything else you desire mastery of). Practice is where the rubber meets the road, as my chemistry professor used to say. Practice is the place in which (in this case the chessboard) you take what you’ve learned (theory) and test it out. You can study theory for eight hours a day, seven days a week, but unless you apply that theoretical knowledge to a real life situation (a game of chess), you’ll never know if it holds true. Chess theory is has little meaning unless it can be successfully tested on the sixty four square battlefield, and it is at this juncture that students often have trouble combining theory and practice.

It seems easy enough. The student studies the theoretical and then applies it to their game (practice). What could be easier, you study something and then test it out! However, the beginner faces a few hurdles when studying chess theory.

To become a good chess player these days, you can’t be a specialist. A specialist is someone who knows one of the game’s phases well but not the other two. For example, we all know someone who is good at opening play but becomes lost when entering the middle game. That person is an opening specialist and while he or she might play brilliantly during the opening, they often become lost when the middle game begins because they only studied the opening. You have to have an all around knowledge of the complete game. The beginner looking to truly improve must therefore study all three phases of the game and that’s where the trouble often starts!

The serious beginning student understands that he or she must put an equal amount of time into studying each phase of the game. Just knowing this however isn’t enough. Our student needs to chose their study materials well. This can be difficult because many chess book and DVD publishers advertise their products as being suitable for beginners when they’re not. Therefore, I would advise students to take a good look at a book’s contents, reading a few pages to see if it make sense or if it goes over your head. The holds true with DVDs. You can usually find a sample of the DVD online. Watch it and see if it makes sense. Unfortunately, simply acquiring the appropriate book or DVD for your skill set is only half the battle. Having to remember the numerous principles (theory) taught in various chess books/DVDs is the other half. This can be a big problem for the beginner.

Beginners learn the opening principles with relative ease. The reason for this is simple. All chess games have an opening phase. However, a beginner’s game may not reach the middle or end phase due to an early checkmate. This means that a beginning student will play through more openings than middle or endgames. The beginner might put a great deal of time into studying middle and endgame basics but may forget specific ideas because they never get that far in their own games, at least during the early part of their chess careers. Therefore, I suggest that you keep a sheet of paper with you as you study books/DVDs about the middle and endgames. One side of the sheet will be for the middle game while the other side is for the endgame. Write down key concepts to keep in mind when playing the middle and endgame. Create a key concept list.

For your middle game list you might write down key concepts regarding piece activity, pawn structure and passed pawn creation. On your endgame list you might write down key concepts regarding King activity, pawn structure, etc. The point is to keep a list of concepts you’ve learned in your studies. Read through the list before each game and keep it close by for reference during friendly games. By keeping this list and adding to it as you progress in your playing and studies, you’ll become a stronger player because the theory you’ve studied will become ingrained in your memory as you refer back to your list.

Chess improvement is really a balanced combination of theory (study) and practice (playing). All the theory in the world does a player no good unless her or she tries it out on the chessboard. Play as much chess as you can. I play constantly because it allows me to test out my new found knowledge. Like the old joke goes, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!

Keeping notes from your studies and referring to them prior to play is an excellent way to reinforce your new found knowledge. I have taken this one step farther in my own training by keeping detail chess journals for each phase of the game. However, if you’re just starting out and are not quite a full blown chess lunatic, stick with a single sheet of paper for your notes. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

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).