Building a Chess Foundation

Building a Chess Foundation

IM Silman
Nov 8, 2010, 12:00 AM |
34 | Other

Ed Asked:

I enjoy chess and would like to progress. I am a smart fellow and play intuitive chess. It serves me well. However, when I run into someone with training, it is apparent.

What should I do?

Dear Ed:

What is “intuitive chess?” There’s a lot of definition wiggle room there. For example, if you play some horrible move, is it because you have bad intuition, or because of … what? I’m confused.

It’s like saying, “I build nuclear reactors. I have no real knowledge of the subject, but I use intuition, which serves me well, and …” Boom.

Personally, I have never taken a golf lesson. I’ve never read anything about the game. Yet, I play every week. I can’t really say that I use intuition, since when it’s time to pick a club, I just grab something, swing, and the ball usually flies over a fence or dribbles 5 or 6 feet. I have no golf foundation whatsoever, and thus intuition can’t work for me. Fortunately my weekly opponent is as clueless as me, so we expect to be horrible. And that’s perfectly okay – It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about having fun (and sometimes being clueless is fun).

In chess, intuition is based on a firm foundation. For example, the brilliant World Champion M. Tal obviously had that foundation, and when he spotted an interesting sacrifice, he would sometimes realize that it was impossible to properly calculate. However, if his intuition told him that it was worthwhile, he would do it. THAT is chess intuition. Great positional players often glance at the board and know what move should be played. No calculation, no deep thought, just a quick scan and their intuition kicks in and gives them the answer.

Unfortunately (as you readily admit), you don’t have that foundation of chess knowledge yet, so that’s what you need to acquire. Since you’re a professor (which you mention in the longer version of your question), I think you’ll completely agree with this – Imagine that you’re teaching advanced details of evolution and how various species evolve in different situations. Then a student says, “I can’t agree with any of this since my intuition tells me that man is just 6,000 years old and rode dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden.” That student can believe whatever he wants (I personally believe that the planet Earth rests on the back of a giant turtle), but he’s not going to pass your class.

So, after much preamble, we now have to address a simple question: How does one acquire that firm chess foundation? Here are some of the basics:

* Play as much as possible, and if you can play people a bit better than yourself, then don’t hesitate to do so!

* Go over master games whenever possible. You can do so slowly or quickly. When I started out, I bought the New York 1924 tournament book (notes by Alekhine) and lovingly went through every game.

* Learn basic endgame theory – Basic endgame mates (Queen vs. lone King, Rook vs. lone King, etc.), opposition, the Lucena Position, the Philidor Position, etc. If you don’t know this easy-to-learn stuff, then you’re flying blind!

* Study basic tactical devices (pins, forks, skewers, etc.), and learn basic mating patterns (back rank mate, smothered mate, the old pawn or Bishop on f6 and Queen on h6 followed by Qg7 mate setup, etc.).

* Create a basic opening repertoire that attracts you (gambits if you want to attack like a demon, more positional systems if you want to seek a more balanced game) and stick with it through thick and thin! Learn its ideas, expect to lose many games as you’re acclimatizing yourself to its patterns and quirks, and patch up the holes. Once you learn and love an opening system, it’s a lifelong affair (and if a spouse dares say, “It’s that opening or me!” you’ll quickly choose your true soul-mate, the opening).

I’ll add that my first opening love was the Accelerated Dragon. I stuck by it through thick and thin and, when I finally switched to the Caro-Kann (my mistress system), my heart still fluttered madly whenever I saw an Accelerated Dragon game.

That’s it! These simple things are fun, can be found in countless books (and online for free), and give you the kind of firm chess foundation that will serve you well for life.


Henry asked:

I am currently going through your book “How to Reassess Your Chess” after it was highly recommended to me and I am enjoying it so far. Although I have been playing chess for about 20 years my knowledge of chess theory is mostly based on hearsay and watching on-board demonstrations. This is the first chess book I’ve endeavored to read through. I have a very basic question that I can’t seem to find an answer to. I understand chess notation, but when reading a chess book, how is one expected to follow the lines? Am I expected to develop the competence to follow the lines mentally, or am I expected to sit in front of a board (or a computer for that matter) and play out the variations? I find the former approach difficult and the latter tedious. I wonder if there are other intended ways.

Dear Henry:

Obviously, this question is aimed at the study of any and all chess books. Sadly, I think you’re pretty much trapped into the choices (as unpalatable as they might be) you mentioned.

A chess book is quite different than other printed matter. I bought an I-Phone app for the novel Bunny Monroe (by Nick Cave, a true creative genius). Aside from just reading the book, I can touch a button and Nick Cave will read the book to me, and I can either follow the sentences/pages as he reads, or just close my eyes and listen. Wonderful!

But, a chess book demands pointed move-by-move attention, which makes the e-book just as “tedious” as a computer or paper book. Yes, computers (and some e-books) will make the moves for you, and also allow you to zip through variations without ever losing your place (just a touch and you’re back to the main position). But you still must pay close attention. Clearly, following the lines is much easier if it’s just a ‘click and watch’ computer format, but paper books demand a real or computer board.

If you use a real board, some players actually use two boards at once: one board always has the main position of the game you’re studying, while the other board is used to look over variations. That way, going back to the main game is always easy and quick since it’s safely waiting on the “non-variation” board.

The question of whether or not a player must go through the variations (and how) is actually quite common. The answer is completely individualistic (and therefore, probably not very helpful) – whatever works for you is how you should do it.

Personally, when going through an annotated game (at a fairly slow clip … not my usual ‘game in a few seconds’ dash), I tend to ignore most of the variations or, if something attracts me, rush through it blindfold. Then, if I feel it’s REALLY interesting, I’ll go back and play through the variation for a more careful look.

If you can’t go through lines blindfold, it’s no big deal. Just play through the game without looking at the notes (UNLESS those notes are prose, which should be carefully read). You can always go back and do a deeper study of a particular game if it “calls to you” in some fashion.

When studying an opening, I think you should just play through the main lines and ignore the sidelines. Once you figure out the general plans/positions/ideas of an opening, then and only then should you go back and look at sidelines. Remember: instructive prose that discusses your opening should be carefully read!

When studying a middlegame/concept book like my HTRYC, I think variations can be ignored if you find them tedious. Instead, make sure you understand the concepts the author is trying to teach you, and carefully read every bit of prose he writes (and if his prose bores you, don’t read the book).

Books on tactics are more variation oriented – since it’s all about studying tactics, you should study all the tactical sidelines too.

As for endgame books, many players find these boring. I think that variation-avoidance is perfectly fine here – just learn the basic positions and you’ll have accomplished the author’s true goal.

Ultimately, if you find that studying a book is tedious, the odds are you won’t learn very much. Study shouldn’t be painful, so make whatever adjustments you need to make so that the material comes to life and gives you both pleasure and instruction! There’s no universal “right way” – the only real right way is that which helps you learn as much as possible from the book you’re reading.

I should add that different authors have different writing styles. Some readers hate me because they want the author to be very, very serious. Others fall asleep when looking at a serious author’s pedantic and/or colorless prose. It’s very important to find an author that “speaks to you.” The ability to read an author’s prose without falling into a coma is extremely important, so find your favorite writers and stick with them!

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