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In Defense of Chess Instruction

  • NM danheisman
  • | Nov 29, 2012
  • | 11346 views
  • | 46 comments

[Scene: Courtroom hearing on Chess Coaching. Dan on witness stand, a few hundred inquisitive spectators watching the proceedings...]

BardYou are aware of the accusation that chess coaches can't really help people play chess better - that they are all stealing money?

Dan: Yes.

BardI take it that you, as a full-time chess coach, disagree?

Dan: Yes.

BardEven though the great Botvinnik himself is famously quoted as saying "Chess cannot be taught. Chess can only be learned."

Dan: Yes, and I should note that Botvinnik was supposedly teaching a chess class when he said that!...

[Audience chucklesWink]

Dan (continuing): ...Botvinnik meant that chess, like other complex mental activities such as reading, requires the brain to become familiar with both patterns and ideas, and that can only be done by repetitious exposure, as those learning how to read must do. I discuss this in the first chapter of my Everyone's Second Chess Book, "Learning, Chunking, and Chess Mistakes." Yet there are many respectable reading teachers.

BardAnd even Bobby Fischer said that he did it all by himself.

Dan: Yes, and every day after school young Bobby would go over to my coach's coach John Collins' house, and analyze with players like Collins and his disciples Bill Lombardy, the Byrne brothers, etc (my college coach was Donald Byrne). Later, it's true he did not have a Soviet crew helping prepare for strong events or analyzing his adjourned games, but that doesn't mean his development happened entirely while locked in a closet. Young Bobby was a frequent player at the Manhattan Chess Club and a participant in a multitude of long time control tournaments up and down the East Coast. Almost all good players either had strong chess coaches for a while or were able to "hang out" in strong chess clubs and analyze with strong players for a couple of years. One IM called this "immersing yourself in the chess culture", a prerequisite for internationally titled play. When young Fabiano Caruana was still living in NY, I asked his father Lou what Fabiano did to improve. His answer was that Fabiano took three lessons a week from different chess coaches and played in an average of three rated chess tournaments a week! No wonder Fabiano, now representing Italy, is up to #5 in the worldSmile.

BardEveryone seems to learn from chess books, but only a few players have coaches.

Dan: Yes, getting information by book or computer or video is an important part of the learning process (see The Theory of Chess Improvement at http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman54.pdf ). And it should go without saying that any strong player got there mostly by his own work and not by the instructor ((See The Seven Percent Solution at http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman130.pdf); the instructor is more of a very helpful guide: to get the proper feedback you need a human to help. I never saw a book look at someone's game and say "Yes, you read me, but you made all your moves in 17 seconds or less despite having 60 minutes on your clock, so you hardly tried to use what you read. Slow down and we'll learn to analyze better!"

[Another murmur of approval from audience]

BardYou mention computers. The best are rated about 3200; they can find a player's missed tactics better than any human instructor.

Dan: Yes, absolutely. I use them after each one of my games for that purpose. But finding missing tactics is only a very small part of what an instructor does and, even there, an instructor can show you both when and how to look for tactics using cues like the Seeds of Tactical Destruction (http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman05.pdf and http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman24.pdf), much less all the other chess skills that need to be developed.

BardSo you are claiming everyone needs an instructor to improve?

Dan: [stands in protest] No! That's patently absurd. [Calms down and sits down] Many players, especially in the early learning stages, can improve greatly just by playing many games, doing the standard "improvement" reading about basic tactics and strategy, and reading instructional game books like Chernev's Logical Chess Move by Move and McDonald's Chess: the art of logical thinking. They can augment the tactics with modern tools like Chess.com's Tactics Trainer or Chess Mentor. But eventually most hit a "wall" which they may or may not be able to get past by themselves, assuming they have the awareness and inclination.

Bard: So one can become a good player without ever hiring an instructor?

Dan: Yes, but much of the answer depends on your definition of "good". I am sure a few of the 2,000 or so GMs never hired an instructor but, as I noted earlier, they probably had someone who performed a similar "feedback" role (see The Improvement Feedback Loop at http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman98.pdf ). It is also important to note that many casual players don't want to work really hard to become very strong players; they are happy learning here and there and just have fun playing the game and there's nothing wrong with that. If you are having fun and don't want to improve then hiring an instructor is likely a waste.

Bard: Given enough time, couldn't the players have done everything themselves that an instructor could provide? For example, they know when they are playing too fast or too slow and can work on that if they wish.

Dan: No, in almost all cases I don't believe so. Having worked with about 1,000 private students, it's pretty easy to see that many get into bad habits that they often don't recognize, or don't know how to get out of those habits. When I wrote my first article on "Hope Chess" almost 15 years ago (http://www.chesscafe.com/text/real.pdf ), I got several emails from players around the world, all to the effect "Aha! I have read many chess books but I never read one that explained to me why I was such a poor player. Why didn't someone else write that before?" I, like those players, had started out with the false, but easily gotten, premise, that I would wait until my opponent moved and try to figure out how to meet his threats (see Beginner Misconceptions at http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman77.pdf ). But luckily I, unlike many, was eventually able to realize that many threats cannot be met, so playing very slowly to anticipate those threats on every move is a necessary prerequisite, although certainly not sufficient, to become a good player (See The Three Times for Checks, Captures, and Threats at http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman125.pdf).

Bard: Aha! Well, if you did it, then everyone else can, too!

[Audience murmurs in approval]

Dan: Possibly, but in my experience some players are too busy reading opening books, playing fast in slow games, playing exclusively fast games, and/or doing other things to realize that their thought process is the root of many of their problems. Thought process and the under-appreciated time management are close cousins. Those are two areas where a chess coach can be very helpful.

Bard: So you think you can help everyone become much stronger?

Dan: No, there are a number of reasons I can't help everyone. Sometimes it is because of chemistry (you have to "click" with your students); other times once they realize they have to do most of the work they look for other miracle cures, others don't realize the immense work involved and don't want to play slow and seriously enough, and several other reasons I might not be able to help. In some cases, another instructor may be better suited helping that student achieve his/her goals (see Finding a Good Instructor at http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman21.pdf). Nevertheless, I have many students who will tell you I "clicked" with them and did help them become much stronger. Howard Stern is a good example; he went from near beginner with an online rating of about 900 up to a max of 1800 in four-and-a-half years. And there are many others who claim via email or post that I never gave them a lesson but my writings were instrumental in some of the great improvement strides they made (thanks for letting me know!). Recent World Youth U14 Co-Champion Cameron Wheeler apparently falls into that category (he won Silver medal on tiebreak - congratulations!).

Bard: Interesting. Many chess coaches spend a lot of time teaching openings and endgames. So isn't that the areas where they are most earning their fee?

Dan: Yes, in those cases likely so. But I agree with GM Rowson in Chess for Zebras when he writes that he eventually figured out that giving adult intermediate players more chess knowledge does not necessarily make them better players. I had also come to that conclusion long before reading Rowson's book.

Bard: So openings and endgame knowledge is not helpful?

Dan: No, I did not say that; that's not remotely true. Everyone needs some opening and endgame knowledge. It's not that Black and White. GM Soltis puts it well with regards to endgames when he writes in Studying Chess Made Simple that for players under 2000 general endgame knowledge is far more helpful than specific endgame knowledge. This perfectly is in synch with my theory is that the stronger the player, the more he needs to learn specific information and the weaker the player, the more he needs to learn general information. For example a beginner needs to be taught that the main goal of the opening is to quickly, efficiently, effectively, and safely activate all the pieces. Getting control of the center and castling the king into safety are also important strategic goals. And the most helpful principle is "Move every piece once before you move any piece twice, unless there is a tactic." But strong players wishing to improve need to learn more specific sequences and what happens when the opponent plays incorrectly. So if you are 2300 and playing the Gruenfeld and want to do it better so you can become 2500, it makes a lot of sense to hire a grandmaster who specializes in the Gruenfeld to teach you. But it makes no sense for a 1300 who wants to become 1500 to hire that same GM to teach him those same Gruenfeld lines (not that the GM couldn't help the 1300 immensely with his openings and other matters, especially safety). Similarly, in the endgame an inexperienced player first of all needs to learn how to analyze slowly and carefully, be able to mate with a Q&K vs. K and R&K vs. K, etc. Leave the Lucena positions to those rated 1800 or above; even if they occasionally occur in your game it won't make a big difference in your playing strength if you throw away a half point; that will be minor compared to the many points you will throw away if you don't learn to play each endgame slowly and carefully.

Bard: So if an instructor can only help the 1300 so much via general and specific knowledge on openings and endgames, where's the beef?

Dan: Again, don't get me wrong. Openings and endgames are very important, but the detailed knowledge of many specific positions should not be the focus of inexperienced players looking to dramatically improve. Instead Analysis and Evaluation are the key skills they should look to improve (see http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman12.pdf). The reason why there are so many 10 and 11 year old 1900 players who can beat 40-year-old 1600 players who have read 100+ chess books and know openings and endgames so much better is that chess is not just a game of knowledge. If that were true, than whoever read the most chess books and understood them would be the top players in the World. But chess is a game of knowledge AND skill. Since analysis is the single most important skill determining your chess strength, 11 year olds who analyze well will consistenly beat 1600 adults who can't do it quite as well. The youngsters easily overcome the knowledge gap not because it is useless, but because it isn't the primary factor in playing strength. The second most important skill, evaluation, is the ability to determine "Which side is better, how much better, and why" given a specific position.

Bard: So you claim an instructor can help a player analyze and evaluate better?

Dan: Absolutely. Although it all begins with two factors: a student's willingness to play consistently slowly and look for better moves in long time control games (that's what analysis requires) and a strong fundamental grounding in basic tactics, since safety (finding tactics your opponent allows you and, more importantly, restricting the tactics you allow your opponent) is the most important component of analysis.

Bard: And how does an instructor best do that?

Dan: Ah, ... well maybe I should sign you up for a lesson...Smile

Comments


  • 20 months ago

    Martin0

    I agree with elubas, but I think neither the help of a coach or the possibilities of an individual player coaching himself should be underestimated. It can vary if you or your coach knows best what you need to do to improve and for most people I think there is a combination between the 2. Having said that I think most players could improve if they get the right coach for them. The advices from the coach should be taken with respect, but not always taken literally. You should be able to pinpoint some of your weaknesses yourself and don't take for granted a coach will find all of them.

    I don't think it is plain clear what coaching is though as for example getting feedback from computer analyses can also be thought as coaching, but generally people don't consider it as such. The same with game analyses, even if it isn't a coach that does the coaching. If someone would get a high rating without any type of advices I would be very surprised (meaning no annotated games, theory, chess discussion, analyses etc. other than by the player himself only)

  • 20 months ago

    Elubas

    One thing I want to point out: if a coach knows all of this habit stuff, that means there are people in the world who know a lot about that stuff. But why can't a chess player be one of those people who happens to be good with that? Maybe he knows how to control his habits better than anyone, even coaches. Maybe he has the skills to be a coach, in which case he can teach himself.

    Whether you have good habits to see your flaws and improve maturely, etc, probably depends on the person. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that there is an improving player out there who can handle his psychology and approach the game just as maturely as a chess coach does.

  • 20 months ago

    Eternal_Patzer

    Not to be overlooked is the sheer joy of discovery you experience when interacting with a master teacher like Dan! I love chess books and have a houseful of them, but none of them has given me the feeling that the scales were literally falling from my eyes that I've gotten after Dan has let me fumble about in a carefully selected position and then 'turned the lights on'. I do a lot of teaching (NOT chess teaching) and it's a real treat to be in the hands of a master teacher like Dan! If you haven't experienced it, I highly recommend it.

  • 20 months ago

    UnionStationFan

    Mrsinfinity, nice job of cyber-stalking. You sign up for Chess.com today to ... what? Just rip on Dan Heisman? 

    Your arguments are both not just silly, but also logically inconsistent. And you're just trying to be as caustic as possible.

    You seem to be trying to make two points, (1) that Dan is wrong suggesting the majority of GM's had coaching or strong players to analyze with, and (2) that Dan is poor coach as evidenced by his references on ICC. These seem to be in an effort to establish the third point that chess coaches are a waste of money.

    For the first, (1) Dan repeatedly uses phrases like "many players," "most players" and "in almost all cases" throughout his statements, so obviously citing one or even a handful of counterexamples is not a disproof. You are actually agreeing with him. To disagree would be to suggest that a majority or large minority of GM's and IM's never had coaching or other strong players to analyze with. You've provided no evidence of this, only a couple of examples. Which agrees with Dan's points completely.

    On point (2), the proof is in the economic reality. I a math professor who, as a graduate student, started earning $15 / hour as a math tutor. By the end of grad school, I was making $40 / hour and had more students than I could handle. Your hourly earn is totally determined by the market, what folks are willing to pay. Dan's hourly rate is determined by demand, generated by satisfied customers, and earns him enough that he can be a full time author and instructor. I had a lesson with Dan and can't wait until I can afford another one. He wouldn't generate that level of demand if he sucked as an instructor, and if no one ever saw results based on his teaching and tutoring.

    On point (3), I won't defend all chess tutors, as I've only had a single chess lesson from Dan. But I will defend Dan. When I was tutoring students in math classes (that I now teach), I could identify their weaknesses and suggest solutions/resources more quickly than less knowledgable and less skilled tutors. My time was worth more than double of many of my peer graduate students, because folks could improve much more rapidly working with me than the others.

    In my lesson with Dan, he saw the moves I made and asked pointed questions, and quickly identified areas for me to improve in. The rapidity and accuracy were astounding and remind me of how an excellent math tutor stops the student mid-problem and with a few pointed questions isolates the root difficulties and misconceptions.

    Dan told me NOT to schedule another lesson until I had completed several assignments which might take 2-3 months, given my family and work commitments. He said NOT to buy the next lesson until I had seen concrete results from the work he identified for me to complete. He most certainly did NOT suggest lessons weekly or even monthly. 

    So...I suppose I'll just have to disagree with all 3 of your points above.

  • 20 months ago

    Martin0

    I think I have to agree with all the things mentioned in the article. I have never had a private coach, but I think it is in some sense similar to anytime you get advice. That happens quite often when analysing games with opponent (which is very familiar with the game) and when analysing with higher rated players. It it relatively easy for higher rated players to pinpoint what area someone should do to improve and harder to show someone what they need to do to specifically to improve as it depends much from each person what way to study is best and what the main reason for the mistake was.

    It is important to know that sometimes it is not a question of study, but rather improve on a psychological level (not having confidence, overconfidence, lack of concentration etc.) which probably most coaches have hard to realize and give the wrong direction to improve. I improved a lot by getting to know myself by admitting weaknesses and believe in my own calculation. Even if my higher rated opponents move should mean this move is bad I should trust my own calculation and not probability of my opponents choice of moves (sounds silly, but I believed more in higher rated opponents than myself. With that belief it is practically impossible to win against them). When you don't know yourself good enough all advices in the world will not be good enough (if none are about psychology).

  • 20 months ago

    hicetnunc

    I find Mrsinfinity's attack of Dan Heisman's witty article really unecessary. People paying for lessons are adults, and intelligent enough to assess if they're getting what they expect from the service, especially since there are rating systems, so you can measure your rating progress very easily (if that's what you're after in the first place).

    I remember a story when I was in high school : during a math exam, one of the student left the place after 20 minutes with an unhappy face, probably having failed miserably at answering the questions Frown The teacher said loud in front of the other pupils : "I like [student's name]. He is not good at maths, but he is a good guy. If I was an emplyer, I would hire him". Did the teacher improve student X's math performance ? No. Was he a good teacher ? Definitely... Smile

  • 20 months ago

    NM fpawn

    I have to say that I have never really had a formal teacher either, but I somehow got to 2298 FIDE.  I did have many master friends, and probably learned a bit from them.  On the other hand, if someone had knocked some sense into me every week to stop playing weak antipositional moves, maybe I would be sitting here as an IM today.

    Alas, two of my young students are currently IMs, and two more are close to that level.  Honestly, I can't take credit for making them so good.  I taught them up to expert level, gave them some tools to improve their chess, and they worked hard to go further than I ever went.  They all had stronger coaches after me, but I still maintain contact. 

    I do, however, take credit for planting the seed.  More importantly, they learned to appreciate chess, which may explain why they still play the royal game, unlike the vast majority of their teenage peers.

    Michael Aigner

  • 20 months ago

    NM danheisman

    Mrsinfinity - Thanks, and sincere congrats on doing well. I am not trying to sign you up as a student - that was not the purpose of the article; it was to answer a recent poster in a Chess.com forum who suggested chess instructors can't help anyone but instead all just take your money. As I noted in the article, many players such as yourself can improve greatly without help but, conversely, that doesn't mean that instructors can't greatly help many others. I should add that the list of my ICC students for reference is, understandably, not my strongest or most improved students, but the ones who came forth and said they would like to act as references Smile (by the way, these are all adults who took lessons years ago but are still friendly). I am also still in contact with my strongest students (many like Cornell Professor Dan Benjamin have not played for years) so I guess, if needed, I could canvas them for references but that has not been necessary.

  • 20 months ago

    Crosshaven

    monkey42,
    Bing websearch of "Everyone's Second Chess Book" granted the below site as highest priority.

    http://www.amazon.com/Everyones-Second-Chess-Book-Heisman/dp/0938650556


  • 20 months ago

    Monkster42

    [COMMENT DELETED]
  • 20 months ago

    Monkster42

    Dan, I have looked everywhere for your book "Everyone's Second Chess Book" and cannot seem to find it anywhere.  Any suggestions as to where I might find it?

  • 20 months ago

    sawyerte

    I always enjoy your work Dan! Your teaching and writing rings true to all I have learned in my 40 years of chess experience. I wish that when we played in the same club about 30 years, I had spent more time playing you than I did! Best wishes, Tim Sawyer

  • 20 months ago

    Bronco70

    A fun and interesting read. Full of good info. Thanks for the related article links for more insights

  • 20 months ago

    Dr_Cris_Angel

    Terrific and wonderfully unique way of getting a lot of information out there! A lot of logic mixed in there too... What you say just makes sense. There are a few referenced articles in there that I'll have to check out! Worth noting, I got the Chernov book from the library yesterday as you had kindly recommended. Finally, I think I can agree with the statement that a coach can't help a player get better....BUT (and this is a big but...) I have no doubt a coach can help a player if the player is dedicated and is willing to work hard! Like any skill, I don't think there is some magic formula -- and it sounds to me that as a coach, you fine tune your lessons based on a student's needs. Seems to me that that would be the best way to do it! Kudos to you for a informative and entertaining read!

  • 20 months ago

    NM danheisman

    Knightdreamer: Thanks, much appreciated. I guess we are going to have to take your eyes and bronze them! Let's hope at least I can keep living, to stay on the candidates list...Smile

  • 20 months ago

    Crosshaven

    Dan,

    Awesome article! I smiled the whole time I read it. In my eyes, you are the best living chess author.

  • 20 months ago

    MoonlessNight

    Guilty, guilty, guilty! I sentence you to 3 hrs of hard labor- aka tactics trainer!

    Just kidding, great article, very fun to read

  • 20 months ago

    NM danheisman

    Shiv,

    Thanks. Although it was not the focus of this article, you know I greatly agree with you, so I will take this opportunity to sneak in another link to that effect: Chess Learning, and Fun at http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman43.pdf Smile.

  • 20 months ago

    Shivsky

    Wonderful article, Dan :)

    I think the "fun" aspect is the most under-rated driver/motivator for getting better at chess, or any skill.

    Every strong-er player I know may or may not have worked any harder or done more or less than I did ... but they ALL sure seemed to have way more fun rolling up their sleeves and analyzing complicated variations while I slowly tuned out, looked at my watch and said "okay, I'm done for now, my head is hurting".

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