Creating a Study Program
Mr. Svorcan asked:
I am self-taught chess player. I have read a few books and have some chess software (Fritz, Chessmaster, etc). I play chess regularly on the net but my “real” rating is unknown, however on some websites I’m in the 1700 range. I play well against ordinary people that play for fun but have never studied chess. Anyhow, I can see that my game needs lots of improvement. Mastering the opening, planning, endgame, strategy, tactics, etc. I just don’t know how to go about this – I feel that I’m jumping from one topic to another and leaping from one book to another without ever finishing anything. In other words there is no real order to my study and no real plan of study. What should I study first, and how long should I study it? At the moment I have the time and dedication to study chess, so I was hoping you could give me some advice.
Dear Mr. Svorcan,
I’m sure a lot of readers will identify with your question. And yes, it can easily be overwhelming! Some old time players (like Capablanca) recommended that you study the endgame first, but many are bored by endgames and he failed to tell the masses just what endgames should be studied. Others say tactics, tactics, tactics. Personally, I believe in balance (a bit of everything).
In general, I would recommend that you keep things simple and only get one book for each area of study. For example, here’s a possible program:
LEARN BASIC TACTICAL PATTERNS
There are quite a few great books on beginning tactics, but I would recommend that you get one that teaches the most basic themes. Here are two good choices (of course, every teacher will most likely have their favorites!):
Winning Chess Tactics by Seirawan & Silman
The Art of Attack in Chess by Vukovic (a classic!)
Both books are great for anyone under 1400 (lots of very basic but critically important material), while also being useful for players up to 2000 (both books also offer more challenging chapters as you work through them).
There are at least a trillion books that feature tactical puzzles. Get a basic one and try to solve a problem or two (solve it from the book diagram) whenever you have a spare moment. This would be a nice complement to the two tactical theme books mentioned.
CREATE A BASIC OPENING REPERTOIRE
FCO: Fundamental Chess Openings by Paul van der Sterren
Modern Chess Openings (MCO) by Nick Defirmian
I highly recommend FCO as your only opening book for anyone under 1400. It gives you the plans and ideas for every opening so you can decide which ones are to your taste. Once you’re past 1400 (or ready to do some memorization of variations), another “everything in one volume” tome allows you to continue our “keep it simple” theme. Thus MCO is a good choice.
Deeper opening study should occur once you have ironed out the deficiencies in the other phases of your game. When you reach that more advanced phase, you’ll find a mindboggling amount of opening books which offer many hundreds of pages on every possible line.
I’ll be shamelessly self-serving here:
The Amateur’s Mind by Silman (for players 1000 to 1600)
How to Reassess Your Chess 4th Edition by Silman (for players 1400 to 2100)
Sadly, the 4th Edition of How to Reassess Your Chess won’t be out until April of 2010 – it’s a completely new book (written from scratch) and contains information and ideas never before seen in any chess book (hard to imagine, but true).
It’s extremely important that the chess student creates a solid base of positional understanding that will work side by side with his tactical skills. So don’t let anyone put down this critical phase of the game!
Okay, here I go again (forgive me!):
Silman’s Complete Endgame Course
If you’re a beginner to 1900, that’s all you will need. Chapters are based on rating groups. The nice thing about this book is that you should only read up to your group, or one past it. Then you can concentrate on the other areas of study (opening, tactic, positional chess).
There are many fine endgame books that offer more advanced material. If you find that you love the endgame, don’t hesitate to pick up more books on this subject – after you become fairly well rounded in all areas of chess study.
IN SEARCH OF A CHESS HERO
Looking over master games is always useful since one full game can give you insights into openings, the middlegame, and the endgame (the whole package!). By going over lots of games, you begin to pick up patterns that, over time, become engrained in your brain. The acquisition of chess patterns is the main ingredient for chess mastery.
To make this fun, pick one player (Alekhine, Capablanca, Tal, Fischer, Kasparov, Karpov, Anand, etc.) and slowly go over their (annotated) games. Another possibility is a tournament book like New York 1924 (annotations by Alekhine). I love these things! You learn about chess history, you follow the event as if it was happening live, and you come to terms with which players bore you, and which ones really excite you – for example, Em. Lasker won NY 1924 and you might decide that he’s the ultimate chess god.
It’s also possible to use a database to collect all the games of your chess hero. However, a database might not give you the quality annotations that you’d find in that NY 1924 tournament book or in a player’s “My Best Games of Chess” collection.
I would recommend that you start with basic tactical themes. Master pins, forks, various mating patterns and whatnot (you can do this in a couple weeks, but keep it up until you really feel you are familiar with that material) and then … stop.
Move on to the creation of an opening repertoire. Why change from opening to opening when you can put together a repertoire and learn from every disaster, every loss, and even every victory? Make sure you choose openings that suit your tastes. Thus, an all gambit repertoire is great fun, or a positional repertoire would offer “good times” for another kind of player. FCO will make this “what should I play” process easy, fun, and quick.
Once you have your tactical basics down and your opening repertoire primed and ready to launch, it’s time to leap into a study of positional chess. This might take a few months, but it will prove invaluable. Don’t hesitate to relax and solve various tactical puzzles during that time!
Finally, make sure your endgame IQ matches your rating. And, whenever you find yourself moving up the rating ladder, read more of that endgame book so your endgame skills continue to match your overall strength.
After you do all this (it could take anywhere from 2 months to 2 years), start to look at master games and/or go deeper into the topics you already studied.