Every chess player dreams of improving his game. He might simply want to smash his friends. He might want that 1200 rating to turn into a 1600 rating. Or he might be sick and tired of not knowing why he lost games X, Y, and Z. Study certainly helps: working through tons of tactical puzzles, immersing yourself in the best endgame books, trying to absorb the material from the finest positional treatises, working hard to create an opening repertoire, and looking at the games of your favorite chess heroes. Playing lots of games (ideally against people your strength and/or a class better) is also critical for a player’s development.
All these things help, and they help a lot!
But... if you want to turbo-charge your game, nothing is as useful as acquiring a skilled chess coach/trainer [In case you think I’m looking for work, I’m not accepting students at this time. However, there are lots of wonderful IM and GM teachers on Chess.com].
TWO PROBLEMS PEOPLE HAVE WHEN STUDYING
1. Many players think that using a chess engine to analyze their games is the way to go. That is so, so wrong. A chess engine will show you tactical things you’ve missed, but it won’t tell you how to find them yourself. It will toss out long variations that show how you could have gotten a slight advantage, but you will usually not understand why one side is better, nor understand the moves leading up to it.
The sad fact is that very strong players are the ones that get the most out of chess engines since they can figure out the veracity of odd assessments and cryptic moves/maneuvers. And when I watch a live online grandmaster game and see countless engine owners screaming that so and so is better, all I have to do is ask “why?” and silence will follow, or something like “because he’s 1.2 better, that’s why!”
Ultimately, chess engines end up as a crutch. A huge amount of players start to think that they are the ones finding the super-computer moves, and thus aren’t aware that they are desperately in need of help.
2. The second study problem is that though a lone player might work hard on trying to figure out why he lost or drew his game, he’s usually unable to spot his misunderstandings and errors, and thus he will also be unable to fix these things. You can’t fix something that, in your mind, doesn’t exist.
WHAT A COACH CAN DO
A really good coach will help you in every phase of the game. He’ll help you build that cool opening repertoire you always wanted. He’ll make sure your tactics are up to snuff. He’ll drum positional concepts and patterns into your head whether think you need them or not. He’ll make sure your endgame knowledge is in line with your rating. And, more importantly, he’ll carefully look over your games and know exactly what is right and wrong with your chess.
Of course, if you want the maximum payback, you’ll need to mix lessons with hard study. The coach can lead you to the waters of chess knowledge, but he can’t make you drink it.
I rarely teach nowadays (too busy), but the few students I do have range from 1400 (most dream of making 1800 and, eventually, cracking the 2000 barrier) to 2200 (the master I teach is trying to get to 2300 and then 2400). Every one of them has specific weaknesses that need fixing. EVERYONE, even grandmasters, have specific weaknesses that need fixing. A coach’s job is to point these out and do anything possible to help the player cure his ills.
Let’s use an example of what a top notch chess coach can teach you from Herman Grooten’s magnificent book, Chess Strategy for Club Players: The Road to Positional Advantage. (It deservedly won the ChessCafe 2009 Book of the Year Award and I give it my highest recommendation!). The game Benjamin Bok (his student, who was 14 years old at the time) vs. Joost Offringa, Venlo 2007:
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 g6 4.0-0 Bg7 5.c3 a6 6.Ba4 d6 7.d4 Bd7
This is a Ruy Lopez, but what other major opening does this remind you of?
Before answering that question, let’s look at a few openings and pawn structures that can only be properly appreciated if one has learned patterns that burn key lessons into your head about structure and bad bishops:
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 and we have a French defense. Black’s c8-bishop is locked in, and it can easily become a problem if you aren’t aware of the pitfalls this can bring. However, if you are aware of all this, then you’ll usually be able to avoid having that bad bishop ruin your day.
Another version is this: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 and, once again, the c8-bishop isn’t as bad as it looks, but it CAN be even worse if you aren’t aware of the correct ideas in these structures.
The one thing you don’t want is for the basic French Defense position to ultimately turn into something like this:
Black’s walked into a very bad bishop vs. great knight situation that is pretty much lost for the second player: 1.Kf2 f6 2.Ke3 fxe5 3.fxe5 Kf7 4.Nf3 Ke7 5.Kd4 Kd8 6.Kc5 Kc7 7.h4 h6 8.Ne1 Be8 9.Nd3 Bd7 (9...Bg6 10.Nb4 a5 11.Nc6, 1-0) 10.Nf4 Bc8 11.g4 Bd7 12.Nh5 g5 13.hxg5 hxg5 14.Nf6 Bc6 15.Nh7 and Black’s doomed. This isn’t necessarily best play, but it gives you a feel for the flexibility of the knight and the lame state of the bishop. A simple example of this nature teaches the student that:
- The knight’s ability to reach any colored square is a huge plus in many knight vs. bishop encounters since the bishop can’t defend anything that isn’t on its color.
- A closed position often gives the knight a real chance to outgun a bishop.
- King position in an endgame is enormously important.
- When playing the black side of the French Defense, you must avoid this kind of situation at all cost!
Note that we started with a common French Defense disaster. But the patterns and concepts we picked up from this one position teaches us to avoid such a demise in any opening as either color. It teaches us some pros concerning the knight (in any position/opening) and negatives concerning the bishop (in any position/opening). And it gives us a very basic but hugely important rule concerning endgames (i.e., better king position). In other words, these patterns/ideas are universal to chess as a whole and will prove useful over and over again in many different situations.
But if you looked at that initial bishop vs. knight position, would you have noticed all these things (and learned from them) on your own? I doubt it if you are in the beginner to 1500 rating range.
Continuing on our study of certain pawn structures and light-squared bishops, let’s take a look at this popular opening:
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Be2 e5 7.0-0 Nc6 8.d5 Ne7 9.Ne1 Nd7 10.Nd3 f5 11.Bd2 and now Black, instead of playing the desirable 11...f4 advance (gaining tons of kingside space and preparing for an all out kingside attack), plays 11...Nf6 first and after 12.f3 only then 12...f4.
This is knowledge you MUST have if you intend to play the King’s Indian Defense. 11...f4 is an error due to 12.Bg4! when the following important things have occurred:
- White has gotten his bad bishop outside the pawn chain.
- White is delighted to swap bishops if Black plays 12...Nf6 since 13.Bxc8 trades the bad bishop for Black’s good one.
- More importantly, Black’s light-squared bishop is a critical part of his kingside attack – it often sacrifices itself on h3 after White tries to stem Black’s pawn avalanche (...f4 followed by ...g5, and ...h5 intending ...g5-g4) by h2-h3.
- Black’s bishop also keeps an eye on the e6-square, in some lines (after Black plays ...f7-f5) preventing a White knight from landing on the e6-hole.
Due to this, Black (from the above diagram) prevents Bg4 first by 11…Nf6 (which also puts pressure on White’s e4-pawn) when 12.f3 is then met by 12...f4 since Bg4 is no longer possible.
This well-known KID strategy not only helps you with the KID, but also teaches you:
- It’s often a good idea to get your bad bishop outside the pawn chain so it can enjoy more activity.
- It’s often not wise to trade a good bishop for a bad one.
- Black’s light-squared bishop is often a key attacking unit for Black since it is aimed at that sector and can leap into action as a fighting piece or as a sacrificial unit that rips away the White king’s pawn cover.
This once again shows you that patterns/ideas for one position usually are useful in a myriad of other positions too!
Okay, by now you might be asking, “That’s all well and good, but what in the world does any of this have to do with that Ruy Lopez position in diagram 1? The Ruy position seems to have nothing to do with the French Defense or the KID.”
Let’s return to our Ruy Lopez position and see what Mr. Herman Grooten (an International Master and a very famous chess trainer who has helped several young players become grandmasters) has to say about it in his book:
“In my training with Benjamin, I had talked about good and bad bishops. With the help of positions arising from the French and the King’s Indian I talked about the strategy to exchange your bad bishop for your opponent’s good one. King’s Indian players know that in the Main Line especially, Black’s light-squared bishop is important in order to have a chance at success in the attack. With this knowledge in the back of his head, Benjamin opts for a clear strategic concept, displaying a good understanding of what he is doing.”
Though IM Grooten explained this in the previous paragraph, allow me to repeat this very important point in a slightly different way: 8.d5 creates a favorable change in the pawn structure. This isn’t just a whim where White attacks a knight, it’s an educated decision made possible by having knowledge about the closed structures in our previous boards, and the role the light-squared bishop has in those structures.
8...Nce7 9.Bxd7+ Qxd7 10.c4
Not 10...f5 11.Ng5 when Ne6 will prove very annoying.
11.Nc3 0-0 12.Bg5! h6 13.Bxf6 Bxf6 14.b4 and White had a clear advantage and, after many adventures, eventually won the game.
What makes this game so impressive is the basic but extremely precious knowledge IM Grooten gave to his young student, and the wonderful way that student made use of it. What makes it even better is that 14-year-old Benjamin Bok didn’t use them in a French Defense or KID, he used them in a completely different opening, which shows he deeply understood the versatility, usefulness, and power of these ideas.
Here’s what Benjamin Bok [who secured the GM title last month in Wijk aan Zee - ed.] noticed and used:
- He can make the position very KID-ish if he closes the center.
- He’s able to morph one pawn structure to another if he feels the change is favorable for him (based on the patterns we looked at).
- White was happy to create this structure since he forced the very advantageous exchange of light-squared bishops.
- White knew the exchange of bishops not only made a kingside attack harder for Black to employ, but it also created a hole on e6 since the light-squared bishop was no longer around to protect that point.
- White swapped off his dark-squared bishop since, as in the French Defense, he understood that Black’s remaining bishop (this time on the dark-squares) is quite bad, which is not only a favorable fact for the middlegame, but also for the endgame (as we saw in diagram 2).
- White played the thematic b2-b4 since his understanding of structural patterns screamed to play for the c4-c5 advance. This isn’t something you discover during the game. This is something you just know from study and excellent coaching.
The point of all this is simple: a very skilled chess coach/trainer gives you the tools to take your game to another level. He/she also deconstructs your games so you can see what you’re missing and what you need to do to fix your flaws. A computer can’t do this for you, and doing it alone is extremely difficult since, though you might think you lost because of a blunder or some obvious error, the player himself is usually not able to fully grasp his own limitations.
Here are some positions that will enable you to test whether or not you can grasp the “little things” in chess. Yes, I understand that you can solve some cool tactical puzzles, but these little things occur far more often than tactical bombs, and if you can’t spot them and use them, that exciting tactic you dream of doing won’t appear against a competent player. True strength shows itself in those “little things,” not in obvious attacks and basic tactical tricks.
Most of these are different than our usual puzzles (I’m experimenting with our puzzle format!). After answering the posed question (retain your answer in your mind, or write it down in detail on paper), click on the question mark on the bottom left corner of the board for my thoughts, or simply play the initial move and my notes will appear.
In our first test Black has more than one reasonable way to defend b7. However, what do you think of 6...Qb6? Also, what how would you access the positions after 7.Qxb6 and 7.c5? Play 6...Qb6 to see the answers.
Black has just played 5...Nc6 and White has to decide how he’s going to develop and what the proper move is at this exact moment. The candidates we’ll deal with are 6.a3, 6.0-0, and 6.Be3 (6.d5 is also very possible, but I’m more interested in people’s reactions to the three I listed). Which would you choose, and what do you think of the moves you rejected? Click on the question mark on the bottom left corner of the board for my thoughts.
Treat this as a normal puzzle, though do your best to really assess the whole position before looking for a move. Afterwards, make sure you read my explanations in the notes!
In the initial position, note that Black’s king is a bit airy, and serious contact is occurring in the center and kingside. How should White handle such a sharp situation?
In this position Black only has three choices: 15...Ne5, 15...Nb8, and 15...Na5. The first two are fine, but is 15...Na5 also playable? Figure out its pros and cons, then, when you’re ready to see the solution, play 15...Na5 and you’ll see my thoughts on the matter.
Another “normal” puzzle. In this event (a 30-minute tournament) the late IM Igor Ivanov and I were vying for top spot. Here the game was agreed drawn (we both eventually tied for first). However, instead of agreeing to a draw, what should he have done?