Chess Cyborg: Chess Teachers And Chess Books
This article is a bit different in that I’ve written about chess books and I’ve written about chess coaches, but I’ve never blended the two together. In doing so, I will show you how your chess teachers can turn your chess books into instructive gold.
When chess players decide to get a chess teacher, it’s a big deal. By seeking help, they are making it clear that they wish to improve and learn, and they understand that to accomplish this it will cost them time and money.
But what’s the best way to pick a teacher? Should you look for grandmasters and international masters? What kind of person should your chess teacher be? What level are you, and what level are you trying to reach?
THE CHESS TEACHER’S RATING
When I was a starving chess pro in San Francisco (many decades ago) I would accept any and all students since — to be honest — I needed the money. And that, “I needed the money” credo is still active today among chess teachers who struggle to pay their rent. That same credo is active with the masses of people seeking jobs. Everyone needs to make a living, so you can’t fault a chess pro for wanting to be able to eat.
Nevertheless, just because a chess teacher is a grandmaster doesn’t mean it's the right teacher for you. If you are just learning how to move the pieces, a titled player is overkill. In fact, even tournament players in the 1400s don’t need a world-class player.
Note I said “world-class player.” Sometimes you will find that a world class player isn’t a world-class teacher. In fact, I’ve known players in the 1500s to 1600s that are incredible chess teachers — they introduce the student to classic games and chess history, they teach you basic tactics and basic positional concepts, and (most important) they make you fall in love with chess.
NOT ENOUGH, OR TOO MUCH PERSONALITY
When some players pick a teacher, they will (hopefully) quickly learn what kind of person their teacher is. Is he funny? If so, that’s great (unless you don’t like humor). Does she curse all the time? Some might like it, some might hate it. Is he an authoritarian? Well, if you loved bootcamp then you might love that kind of teacher.
Personally, if I were the student I would get up, back away slowly, then run as fast as I can!
The point is that the student should feel comfortable, and (ideally) should feel a connection (though this will probably manifest over time). If you are not comfortable or if your teacher isn’t giving you what you wanted, then find another teacher!
YOUR LEVEL, AND YOUR GOALS
Be honest (and realistic!) about where you stand and where you want to be. A 1400 player that wants to be a master in several months is deluding himself. Instead, tell the teacher what your goals are, the time frames for those goals, and what you feel are your strengths and weaknesses.
A good teacher will look over your games, tell you if your weaknesses are indeed weaknesses and your strengths are really strengths, and then will create a long-term program that, if followed properly, will make you a much stronger player.
ANOTHER TRICK IN THE TEACHER’S HAT
Most chess students think they will be taught openings, basic tactics, how to attack, positional themes, etc.. And yes, they do get taught that!
However, the experienced chess teacher sees lessons everywhere and, from time to time, will look at the chess books you own (or intend to own) and show you how you can turn a chess book into a serious learning machine.
THE BLENDING OF CHESS TEACHER AND CHESS BOOKS
Let’s take a look at a couple books that I recently got (sent to me by the publishers to review). Personally, I don’t teach beginners (overkill — you don’t need me) or young children (teaching children demands a certain kind of skill-set that I don’t have). So the following book (fresh off the presses) is a bit of an enigma to me:
Prepare With Chess Strategy by my old friend Alexey W. Root. Published by Mongoose Press (130 pages), this book builds “on the Boy Scouts of America’s chess merit badge pamphlet.”
Boy Scouts? I didn’t know that the Boy Scouts had anything to do with chess (I’m completely ignorant on this topic). In fact, I know nothing about the Scouts.
The book itself, which is for beginners who already know how to move the pieces, is filled with useful things like material vs. activity, space in the endgame, pawn chains, doubled pawns, king safety, time trouble, and a lot more.
However, since I don’t have the skills to teach children or beginners (while Alexey clearly does), one might think that the book would be useless to me. But, that’s not the case. Why? Because almost every chess book gives a chess teacher new ideas, new ways to communicate with students, and new ways to present pertinent information.
Let’s say that John, a young man of 15, has played for many years, has a reasonable grasp of basic tactics, but never paid attention to positional ideas. He specializes in bullet (his bullet rating is 1250), since his lack of positional acumen can (to some extent) be covered up by tactics. But, he finally wants to step into longer time controls and, eventually, even tournaments. And, as it happens, he has Alexey Root’s book.
The young man decides he needs help and he finds a chess teacher who has very reasonable rates. This teacher is experienced, notices that John is carrying around Alexey’s Prepare With Chess Strategy, borrows the book (or buys it for himself), and tells John to read the section on pawn structure.
Afterward he quizzes John about that material (pawn chains, doubled pawns, etc.), and then takes each part of that chapter and, after adding various examples from well-known games, explains in detail each positional point, while also telling John to ask any questions that come to him.
What we’ve seen here is a melding together of teacher and book. The teacher used the book to see what John’s weaknesses were and then he paid special attention to that subject. The teacher was necessary since the student often doesn’t recognize his weaknesses or how to fix them. And the book helped the teacher see what John was having trouble with.
Let’s leap into a far more advanced book: Beating Minor Openings by grandmaster Victor Mikhalevski.
Quality Chess is known for their excellent but often advanced books, and one might think that players 2000 and up (way up!) would be the right audience for this kind of tome.
BUT…hold on! A good teacher (probably a titled player in this case) is always on the lookout for instructive positions, and these can be found in just about any chess book, no matter what it’s about (in this case it’s an opening book).
Here’s a great example:
An untrained glance might tell you that White has the better position due to White’s far more advanced knights, and more queenside space. And though White’s knight on f5 is happy on that square, in two moves it can grab an even better square by Nf5-e3-d5.
This alone would be a good example of the use of holes (d5) and how knights tend to migrate to them. Once the teacher shows this to the student, the teacher might show many more examples of this idea which, hopefully, will be burned into the student’s brain forever.
However, is White really better? Are there any weaknesses in White’s camp, and if so, can Black take advantage of them? One idea (I won’t discuss whether it will or won’t work in this exact situation) is making use of the hole on d4 by ...Be7 followed by ...Nd7-f8-e6-d4. But the real target-point is White’s c4-pawn. Black has the ability to pile up on it by …Bf7, ...Ndb6, and ...Ncd6.
Victor Mikhalevski gave the following moves (though the comments are mine):
This one little diagram gave us a wonderful glimpse at two instructive concepts: support points for the knights to live on (White’s f5-knight makes its way to d5 via e3, while the d7-knight might, here or in similar positions, wend its way to d4 by ...f8-e6-d4.) and ganging up on a weak target (the c4-pawn).
It’s a beautiful thing when one little position can give us so much to learn!
Some of you might be asking, “If I own the book, can’t I find the same things the IM or GM can find?”
The answer is, in most cases, no. The student is often unable to notice the true value of one diagram when it’s nestled in hundreds and hundreds of pages. Hence, let your chess coach or teacher get to work and find this stuff for you!
And then sit back (wide-eyed for effect!) and enjoy the teacher’s instructive explanations.
So far we’ve looked at a beginner’s book and an opening book, but how about a book about chess history? I’ve recently picked up an amazing book about Henry Edward Bird: H.E. Bird, A Chess Biography With 1,198 Games.
This hardcover (published by McFarland & Company) has 595 oversize pages, and it’s loaded (thanks to the author, Hans Renette), with every aspect of the legendary Bird’s life and games. Books like this are ideal to immerse yourself in chess history, and one would think that 1,198 games would help you become a better chess player.
For some, this might be the case. But, once again, can the student point out key instructive moments in those games? Another question is aren’t many of those games filled with horrible errors? Well, yes, and those errors are very useful to amateur players.
The lessons here are:
- Castle as quickly as possible.
- In general, giving up the center is a very, very bad thing.
- When your opponent’s king isn’t castled, and when his pieces are spasming here and there in total confusion, and when your pieces are developed and ready to strike, go for the gusto since, if you give him a few moves, your opponent might have righted his ship.
Though the author mentioned these lines (he annotated many of the games), a good teacher would discuss this mistake in detail, helping the student be fully aware of this type of positional breakdown.
Here’s another position from this book, which once again teaches us a simple but very important concept:
I must say that if you like chess history, and you love beautiful books, and you appreciate the author's obvious dedication to perfection, and you can afford it ($75.00), pick up a copy. It will give you years of enjoyment.
Let’s pick one final example from another book: Playing the Ragozin by Richard Pert (Quality Chess, 2016). Yes, another advanced but very well done opening tome.
Closing my eyes, I opened the book, took a peek, and then found that I was on page 176. Here are the initial moves that take us to our key position:
This position is extremely instructive, but would a 1500 player be able to deconstruct the position? Would he realize that this one position offers a wealth of important lessons?
Let’s take a look at what’s really going on:
Rich positions like this (our last position teaches the nuances of bishops vs. knights, conquest of a square complex, and the dangers of not castling) can be found in just about every book. But it takes a good teacher to decode it and turn it a master class of instruction.
By the way, I was a big fan of the Ragozin Defense for many years, and I won a lot of games with it. Pert’s book on the Ragozin is excellent, and I highly recommend it to players 2100 and above (you will need a solid understanding of dynamics and have a high level of tactical acumen).