Microdrills to Improve Your Chess!

| 7 | Tactics

A Four-week Chess Improvement Course with Micro-Drills

The goal of this article is to greatly improve your Chess Vision: what you see in the first ten-second glance at the board. You will do this by repeating a set of micro-level exercises.
When athletes practice, they repeat short exercises over and over again. For example, basketball players stand at the free throw line and shoot free throw after free throw. Soccer players practice simple passing schemes repeatedly.

These micro-drills are to be practice over the course of 4 weeks. During the first 2 weeks you will practice pattern recognition of simple forks and skewers. During the next 2 weeks you will focus on knight calculation.
To practice simple forks and skewers use an exercise that De la Maza calls the Concentric Square. Begin by placing the black king on d5 and a black rook on d4. Now sequentially place the white queen on every square where it safely forks or skewers the black king and rook. Once you have determined that there are no such squares move the rook in a square around the king (squares e4, e5, e6, d6, c6, c5, and c4) and look for forks and skewers. When you find such a square physically lift up the white queen and place it on the square. Involving your body in this process is critical because it helps to cement the connection between the position and the key square.
Now move the rook one square further away from the king and repeat the process. The rook now moves through the squares c3, d3, e3, f3, f4, f5, f6, f7, e7, d7, c7, b7, b6, b5, b4, and b3. Continue moving the rook one more square away from the king until the rook reaches the edge of the board. See Figure 1 for the path that the rook traces as it moves in concentric squares around the king.





Figure 1: This figure illustrates the concentric squares that the rook traces as it moves around the stationary king. The rook travels the following path: d4, e4, e5, e6, d6, c6, c5, c4, c3, d3, e3, f3, f4, f5, f6, f7, e7, d7, c7, b7, b6, b5, b4, b3, b2, c2, d2, e2, f2, g2, g3, g4, g5, g6, g7, g8, f8, e8, d8, c8, b8, a8, a7, a6, a5, a4, a3, a2, a1, b1, c1, d1, e1, f1, g1, h1, h2, h3, h4, h5, h6, h7, and h8.


Now replace the black rook on d4 with a black bishop, black knight, and black queen and repeat the Concentric Square exercise. Finally, pound the attacking patterns into your brain by repeating the Concentric Square exercise for each of the black pieces (black rook, black bishop, black knight, and black queen) every day for fourteen days.

By the end of these 14 days your ability to see forks and skewers in your first ten-second glance at the board will vastly improve. After the initial 14-day period, consider going through these exercises once or twice a week and before games to refresh your skills. You can add variety to these exercises by using a white rook, knight, or bishop instead of a white queen and changing the position of the black king to, say, g8 and c8, the two squares that the king moves to after castling.

As you are going through these exercises you will probably notice that the knight poses the most difficulty. The squares that the other pieces can move to just pop out while the squares that the knight moves to often have to be "calculated" by class players. This consumes time and energy that could be used on other aspects of the game. You should remember that if a knight can be posted on e5/e4/d5/d4  then you will be very likely to win the game.

The next micro drill, is called Knight Sight, and is designed to make the squares that a knight can move to "pop out." Begin by placing a knight on a1 and physically touch the squares that it can move to (c2 and b3) with your finger (see Figure 2). Then move the knight to a2 and repeat the process. Continue until you reach a8 and then move back to b1, going row by row until you reach h8. Repeat this Knight Sight exercise every day for one week.



Figure 2: Improve your Knight Sight by placing the knight on a1 and then physically hitting the squares that it can move to, c2 and b3, with your finger. Then move the knight to b1 and repeat the process.


At the end of this week, test your Knight Sight by placing the knight on random squares on the board and see if the squares that it can move to jump out at you. If not, repeat the process for another week and continue doing so until you no longer need to calculate the knight’s moves.


Once your Knight Sight meets your standards, you are ready to move on to the next step. Place a knight on d5 and calculate the minimum number of moves that it takes to bring the knight to d4 (see Figure 3). You can prove that it takes exactly three moves: first you can show that it does not take one move because your Knight Sight makes the squares that the knight can move to in one move pop out, and d4 is not one of them. Second, you know that it cannot take two moves to move the knight to d4 because the knight alternates colors, and since d5 is a dark square, it cannot be on d4 which is a light square after two moves. Third, it does not require more than three moves to go from d5 to d4 because you can calculate at least one path (e.g., d5-c3-e2-d4) that takes exactly three moves.



Figure 3: Improve your Knight Sight further by placing the knight on d5 and calculating the shortest path to d4. For added challenge, calculate all minimal paths.


Now go through the same process that we followed in the Concentric Squares micro drill. Starting each exercise with the knight on d5, move the knight to the squares e4, e5, e6, d6, c6, c5, and c4 in the minimal number of moves. For added challenge find all of the minimal paths, not just one. Now, just as before, expand the concentric square as shown in Figure 1 and repeat the process. Continue expanding the square until the knight is at the edge of the board.


Repeat this process every day for a week. As a refresher repeat it before tournaments and on a monthly basis. You can vary the exercise by changing the knight's starting square. Instead of d5, try c3, f3, b1, and g1, all natural squares for the knight.


Some players may object that these micro drills are so trivial that they are unnecessary. The fact that they are trivial, however, does not mean that they are not useful. Remember that soccer players practice penalty kicks and basketball players practice slam-dunks even though these tasks are trivial. Professional athletes perform these micro drills over and over again so that they can perform at a high level in adverse situations.


Even very strong players sometimes make simple Chess Vision mistakes. For example, Joel Benjamin missed a mate in one against Boris Gulko at the 2000 US Championships. The purpose of these exercises is to automate the knowledge that you already have so that you unconsciously see simple combinations without having to exert any effort. The time and energy that you save can then be spent on calculating more complicated combinations.


Work through these micro drills for 4 weeks and you will notice a significant improvement in your ability to recognize the most common combinations and calculation in knight moves. 


(text adapted from


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