The Biggest Secret Of Chess Improvement

The Biggest Secret Of Chess Improvement

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After reading the title of this article, some of you, my dear readers, might think "oh no, not another 'secret' of the Soviet chess school." Indeed, recently we've seen too many similar "revelations." I can vividly see a blurb on one such book which claims that the author "offers for the first time the once-secret Russsian method of chess training." So, here I am not going to reveal the secrets of the Soviet School of chess for the simple reason that I already did it six years ago.

Instead of pretending that I know some ultimate piece of wisdom that you can only understand if you are a grandmaster, I am going to offer you a simple logical approach. I assure you, that it will make sense to you even if you just started playing chess yesterday. So, without further ado, let me reveal the biggest secret of chess improvement: do more of what works and less of what doesn't! There, I said it! Isn't it simple? 

While this logical approach makes perfect sense, many people do just the opposite. Here is a simple example. One of my students said that he was going to play an opponent who always starts his games with 1.e4 e5 2. Nf3 Bc5? Naturally, my student was excited to start his game up a pawn. I was quite skeptical, but the database revealed that indeed, the player in question always played the bad move 2...Bc5.  Just like my student expected, he was up a pawn as early as move three, and later he won the game.

What really bothers me in this story is: why would the poor guy start all his games down a pawn? Does he get good positions out of the opening? Absolutely not! Does this dubious line give him good results? Well, he surely wins some games, but it is safe to assume that his wins come despite the outcome of this opening move, and not because of it. The following game is a good example: Black was completely lost out of the opening, and then his opponent blundered their queen:

If you look at this player's rating progression chart, you can see that his rating is slightly lower today than it was in November 2017. In other words, there is no progress in four years, which means something definitely doesn't work. In order to make progress, this player should identify things that don't work (like this opening line for example), and get rid of them.

It goes without saying that an opening is the easiest part of the equation. Just look at the statistics of your games played in the opening in question and you'll see if it works for you or not. But what could be other things that don't work for you and how could you fix them?

Let's go back in time into post-World War II Leningrad. A young kid wins all the local scholastic tournaments and a famous Soviet coach, Vladimir Zak, accepts him into his group in Leningrad's Pioneer's Palace. The talented boy's name was Boris Spassky.

Boris Spassky
Spassky in 1956. Photo: Herbert Behrens/Dutch National Archives, CC.

In his book about the 10th world champion, GM Nikolai Krogius, who knew Spassky very well, writes that just like most of the kids, young Boris liked complicated positions full of combinations and tried to get such situations in his games. Unfortunately, Zak insisted that strategical principles were more important and urged Spassky to study typical middlegame positions and endgames. As the result, Spassky's play became more positional and his tactical abilities dropped significantly.

As an example, Krogius offers the following game where Spassky resigned as early as move 12, thinking that he was going to lose a significant amount of material. Can you find how Black could save the material and continue the game?

Yes, Black's position would be still quite bad even after this little tactical trick, but the point is Spassky didn't see it at all and resigned the game thinking that he would lose a lot of material.

Master Y. Damsky, who also knew Spassky since his childhood, writes that Vladimir Zak, who was a candidate master, played "academic" chess and instilled into his students' minds that they had to play "correct" chess. Therefore even Spassky's enormous natural talent couldn't possibly break through the "wall" of positional chess of Siegbert Tarrasch or Aron Nimzowitsch. As a result, we can see some really boring games played by Spassky at that period. Like this one, for example:

Fortunately, Spassky started working with GM Alexander Tolush, who was a very aggressive attacking player. GM Viktor Korchnoi remembers that he could see a dramatic difference in Spassky's play within a couple of years. It was not even the fact that Boris played much stronger than before; he played differently. He was eagerly fighting for the initiative the way Tolush did, and maybe even better than his new coach. Korchnoi states with regret that it was absolutely clear that Spassky was already way ahead of Korchnoi in his chess development. Korchnoi concludes that it all happened because of Spassky's new ability to fight for the initiative.

The following game illustrates Korchnoi's observation quite well:

Today it is easy to see that leaving Zak was a very important step in Spassky's chess development. I already discussed this subject in this old article, but here is just one quote by GM Alex Yermolinsky (another student of Zak's): "We had a joke: anybody who survives the 'training method' is guaranteed a bright future! The important thing was to leave Zak before frustration set in and you decided to quit chess. [GMs] Valery Salov and Gata Kamsky left early and became stars in their teens."

Was it easy for 12-year-old Spassky to leave his famous coach and start working with Tolush, who was a very controversial person? Of course not! But he could see that he really needed to change something that clearly didn't work, and therefore he took the risky step, which turned out to be a brilliant decision.

The lesson here is simple: if you win game after game and gain more rating points per tournament than GM Alireza Firouzja, then keep doing what you've been doing. It clearly works for you quite well. On the other hand, if your chess results have stalled, then you need to figure out the things that don't work for you. Whether it is an opening, a general playing style, or a pack of your favorite cigarettes, something has to go! 

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