Chess Improvement for Seniors

Although I have one regular student who is middle-aged and occasionally others who are young adults or seniors, most students are in the 5-18 age range. The question naturally arises, do students learn in different ways at different ages, and should we teach them accordingly? Other contributions will continue to focus on the chess education of young people, but today I want to touch on another subject of keen personal interest – the education of those who have crossed over to the fourth quartile of life expectancy, the seniors, the elderly, the geezers, yes, the old fuddy-duddies. Is it still possible for those of us past middle age to improve at chess?

I believe the answer is a resounding yes! There are practical success stories and neurobiological studies to support this conjecture. However, aside from the obvious need for hard work (those “10,000 hours” of intensive practice) it’s clear that, as we age, there are some differences needed in the approach to improvement.

First and foremost, as Nigel has convinced me, physical conditioning is essential. If you’re still a tri-athlete at age 62 that’s wonderful, but others of us have let ourselves go, gained excess weight, consumed the wrong kinds of things and so don’t have the needed energy at the end of a long game or tournament. So I’m starting to do the things my doctors have been telling me to do for years – but it took Nigel to actually make me do them. He had a powerful argument – do it for your Chess!

Secondly, older players should be challenged to shed old misconceptions. After all, we’ve been around along time and have been exposed to a lot of really bad ideas, some of which we’ve internalized and made us stuck in our ways. Some examples from my own experience: (1) I grew up believing that if you allowed your opponent a protected passed pawn, then you would be almost certainly lost. Not necessarily true! There are many cases in which you can blockade the pawn, then encircle and undermine its support from the rear (see first game below); (2) I rarely developed queen in front of bishop, e.g. Qe7 blocking Bf8, without an immediate flank development of the bishop. But I now see examples in which this is the right approach, essentially setting up a battery (in this case against a3) or creating the possibility of queen leading then developing bishop along the same path, or just doing something nasty along the e-file (see second diagram below) – the concrete variations outweighing the “rule” to avoid shutting in your bishop; and finally (3) I would rarely even consider withdrawing a minor piece to the back rank if it interrupted connection of the rooks for more than an instant.  But I’m more open to this now after seeing a few examples. Again, the concrete features of the position outweigh the general rules or guidelines. You need an instructor to guide you through and eradicate bad ideas.

I have always been fond of books. Like many of my generation, I was self-taught from books (chess as well as other subjects). In college I sometimes didn’t go to class. After all, I had the book, and often for lectures the guy was just shamefully copying out of the book. One time, after skipping the previous class, I arrived at the mid-term exam. One of the three questions was not from the book! Oh no! I objected, indignantly writing in the margins that I knew the material better than this test would indicate. The professor calmly responded with his own note – “Good; try to come to class more often and learn the material even better.” Moral: it doesn’t all come from books.

Which brings me to the next point: to be successful, older players must embrace new technologies as tools, just as younger players are doing as a matter of routine and, by the way, as Artists in fields other than chess are doing also (no, I’m not saying that Chess is Art; rather, I accept Lasker’s view that Chess is essentially a fight, with elements of artistic expression – more on this at another time). So, what are these tools?

When I go to tournaments I see many young players taking laptop computers everywhere they go: the hotel lobby, the restaurant, even the elevator! They know who their next round opponent is and what color they have, so they’re preparing in real time for that specific game! Sounds like cramming for an exam, which I gave up as a bad academic practice long ago – you just end up tired and confused. But if you’re doing this for only a few minutes before a game and not losing any sleep, then it may be of some use to see how your opponent responds to your favorite line against the Leningrad Dutch. But my personal pre-game routine would be to just rest those few minutes and trust my general preparation.

On the other hand, it certainly makes sense to do home preparation using modern databases of games. If you’re learning a new system, study a lot of grandmaster games. If you reach a position you don’t understand, use an analysis engine to discover a possible tactical explanation. If the answer isn’t a simple tactic or combination, plan it as a question for the next lesson with your Instructor.

Finally, you can and should study endgames from books. But all of the ‘simplest’ endings (six pieces or less) are contained in tablebases, which give the perfect solution in all cases. Of course, we know that many of these positions are not really simple at all. And since you can’t take the computer into the game with you and, nowadays, there are no adjournments (precisely because of computers), you somehow have to get the most frequently occurring of these endings into your head. Tablebases might be a good way of practicing this.