Getting the Most Out of Studying a Game

On of the key factors in improvement is studying the games of master level players. We study those games because they allow us to see the many principled ideas we learn in action. While applying the game’s principles to our own play helps with self improvement, seeing those principles applied by the world’s best players, both past and present, increases our understanding of specific principled ideas. There is no substitute for studying the game of others. Yet, beginners often have a difficult time getting the most out of the games they study. Here are some ideas to help the beginner and even more advanced player, get the most out of learning from the games they study.

When first playing through a game, most beginners try to take in all the variations and alternative moves being made. Doing this can confuse the beginner from the start. Therefore, I urge you to not look at anything but the primary moves made in the game. Don’t worry about lines of play based on computer analysis. In fact, acquire a piece of light cardboard or paper and use it to cover up any analysis or variations. If you don’t know what these are, they’re the game moves that are printed in a lighter or smaller font under the actual moves made in the game. Sometimes you’ll see the words “better yet” before the analysis or variation line. They can also appear inside of brakets. Ignore those for now. Why ignore them?

To understand any variations or analysis lines, you need to first understand the moves that were made when the game was played. If you don’t understand those moves, the alternative moves will make no sense. Start by playing through only the game.

Starting with move one, note what principle was used by both players. The opening phase of the game being studied should be relatively easy to understand in terms of principles. Both players will develop a pawn or two towards the board’s center, develop their minor pieces towards the center, castle and possible connect their Rooks. However, some openings tend to be more obvious in terms of opening principles than others, especially to the beginner. Take the Ruy Lopez or Spanish Opening. With an opening like the Giucco Piano or Italian Opening, the King-side Bishop moves to c4 on move three where it attacks the board’s center. With the Ruy Lopez, the King-side Bishop moves to b5 on move three. Beginners have a hard time determining how this move helps to control the center. After 3…a6, White has the choice of moving the Bishop to a4 or exchanging it for the Knight on c6. In the exchange variation, after 4. Bxc6…dxc6, the Black e5 pawn no longer has protection and could be captured by White’s f3 Knight. 3. Bb5 indirectly effects the center. Study the game, move by move. Don’t proceed further into the game until you know why a specific move was made.

Work your way through the entire game one move at a time, not going forward until you know why that move was made. This requires work but your knowledge of principled play will greatly increase. If you speed through the game and skip over a move you don’t understand, the remaining moves will make little sense. Did I mention you need to play through the game five times before considering looking at the variations? You need to know the game well before considering and understanding the computer analysis lines. When you come to the fifth run through, grab a pen and a piece of paper. You’ll need these items because on this last run through, you’re going to see if you can come up with any of your own alternative moves.

Often, you’ll make the move played in the game and ask yourself, “why didn’t White or Black make this move instead?” When you have such a thought, write down the move and see if you can come up with a good response from the other player. After coming up with a response to your initial move idea, see if you can find a good move to answer that response. This requires a great deal of work but will help you with your calculation skills. Now we’re going to look at the analysis lines that are either generated from a computer program or take from similar positions in other games.

With the piece of paper you wrote down your own alternative moves by your side, play through the game again. When you get to a variation based on computer analysis or actual recorded games, compare what you thought was a good move to the analysis. You might have chosen a move the analysis chose. If this happens, you’re making real progress. Don’t worry if your ideas don’t appear in the game’s text. You don’t have the analytical capabilities of a computer engine! Play through the analysis one move at a time. Go through the analysis lines five times.

Lastly, as you play through the games, take notes regarding what you liked and what you didn’t understand for future examination. I know this seems like a mountain of work but think of a good chess game as a piece of art. When you to a museum and look at a painting for five minutes, you might think. “this is simply amazing” and move on to the next painting. The art expect might spend six months closely examining that same painting to unlock the real mystery behind it’s beauty. When the art expert says “this is simply amazing,” he or she knows why it’s amazing because they’ve studied it in detail. Studying chess games is the same way. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson


Author: 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).