Do Aspiring Players Need a Coach/Teacher?

Do Aspiring Players Need a Coach/Teacher?

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member Zuud08 asked:

What should a developing player try to obtain from:

a) His games / tournament experience

b) A book

c) A coach

d) Private training (tactics etc) 

Dear Zuud08:

I get so many questions asking about improvement methods and study material, but everyone seems to forget that all these things depend on the details of the individual; there is no generic answer. (It’s like asking a doctor, “I feel pain. What can I do about it?”).

Thus, for me to give you an educated reply, I would need to know the same things that a chess teacher would need to know:

* What is your rating/strength?

* How long have you been playing?

* What do you consider your strengths AND weaknesses to be?

* What are your chess goals?

* What kind of chess excites you the most (positional, attacking, classic openings, gambits, tactics, strategy, etc.)?

* How much time can you devote to chess study?

* And if you’re looking for a chess coach/teacher, what personality traits best suit you? In other words, if your chess teacher had a bit of drill sergeant in him (e.g., “Hey maggot, is that a real move or did you drop the piece there by mistake?”), would that make you tune out? Do you need Oprah-like sweetness (e.g., “Oh, such a nice move! Perhaps you could have done a bit better, but your move really shines and shows just how talented and special you are.”). Do you want a teacher that will make you laugh, or do you prefer a teacher that speaks in a monotone and takes everything very, very seriously? Compatibility is extremely important!

Okay, let’s give generic answers to your questions (though not in the order you asked):

Chess Books:

There are more chess books than there are books on all other sports and games combined. This means finding the right book is extremely important since it’s easy to spend many lifetimes reading all sorts of great chess books that won’t address your personal needs. Nothing wrong with that, but if you have a specific goal, you will need a specific book!

An advanced opening book is more or less useless for a player rated 1100. On the other hand, a basic book on openings would be wasted money for someone in the 1900 class.

If you have tactical talent but no positional skills, you need to fix that lack. If you have solid positional skills for your rating group but are a tactical cripple, you need to find a book that addresses that.

Tournament Experience:

The more you play the better you’ll get. Experience is enormously important in chess, and playing people a tad better than yourself can really rocket you to the next level. Don’t be afraid of losing – every defeat pinpoints some weakness in your understanding of the game and should be viewed as a source of priceless information.

A Coach/Private Training/Going over your games:

Even the most highly regarded coach can be wrong for you if there’s no connection, or if his expertise is in areas that don’t affect your needs. But a chess coach (private lessons) can be hugely beneficial if he’s a skilled/experienced teacher, if his rates fit your budget, if he genuinely wants to help your game, and if you feel in tune with him.

A good chess teacher will tell you how to maximize your tournament experience. He will help you create an opening repertoire that suits your tastes, style, and skills. He’ll make sure you know basic endgames. And he’ll work on tactics and positional chess to make sure you’re as well rounded as possible.

Most importantly, the top-level chess teacher will see weaknesses in your game that you (and others) might have been blind to. And once he sees these things, he’ll work hard to eradicate them and take you to a whole other level.

I should add that if you get a chess teacher and you’re not happy with him, let him go and find someone else! He might be the greatest teacher in the world for Sam the 1900 player, but if he’s not able to help you (or communicate with you in ways that will enable you to understand what he’s trying to say), you have to let him go and seek a proper match.

Finally, I’ll address the study of your games with a skilled teacher. Remember: many of your games are pure gold in the right hands, and you should keep wins, losses, and draws. Send them ALL to your teacher and let him pick which ones will do you the most good (You might think you know what games will prove most instructive, but you don’t! It takes a trained eye to know these things.). It’s also a good idea for you to annotate all your games. This will enable the teacher to see just how far off from reality you were or, in happier cases, just how much you’ve improved in one area of chess thought (allowing him to concentrate on areas that you are still sub-par in).

Here’s an example of just how instructive one of your games can be. White is a student of mine who has made serious strides towards his goal of reaching Expert (2000) and then (hopefully) Master (2200). One thing I immediately instilled in him is that Experts and Masters suck – they are terrible (in the greater scheme of things, of course – it must be said that few people actually ever reach the Expert level). I proved this to him by showing just how badly they play in his own games. That’s important, since a fear of players at these levels is ubiquitous in tournament competitions. However, Mr. Glawe no longer has any fear of them whatsoever, and this allows him to face higher rated opponents without any psychological downside.

C. Glawe (1920) – V. Iyer (1972) [B15]

2010 North American Open

1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6+ exf6

One of the oldest interpretations of the Caro-Kann. Fans of this line are Korchnoi and Christiansen. 


I’ve never believed that this line gives White anything at all. The only challenge is 6.c3 followed by 7.Bd3, 8.Qc2, 9.Ne2, and 0-0-0.

6.Bc4 is also lacking in punch due to 6…Qe7+! 7.Ne2?? (7.Qe2 Be6, =) 7...Qb4+ wins for Black.


Passive. The Bishop should move to d6 with equal chances: 6…Bd6 7.Bc4 0-0 8.0-0 Bg4 9.Qd3 Qd7 10.Re1 a5 11.a4 Na6 12.c3 Nc7 13.Bd2 Bf5, ½, E. Gufeld, - Silman, Memorial Day Classic 1987. Black has a very comfortable position here.

7.Bd3 0-0 8.h3 Be6 9.0-0 Nd7
















At this point (after noting that 10.Bf4 was white’s next move) I realized that neither player understood the position. Both felt the moves they played were perfectly reasonable, but both were wrong. As a result, I backtracked a bit so I could make a point about structure. Why structure? Because pawn structure usually serves as a blueprint to a position’s soul.

Thus, I reset the pieces and played these moves: 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 (A basic starting point in the Caro-Kann. Black almost always plays 3...dxe4, though 3...g6 is also seen from time to time.) 3…b5!? (A very rare and very disgusting looking move that I played several times. The idea is to meet 4.exd5 with 4...b4. However, I had a specific interpretation of this line if White played 4.a3.) 4.a3 dxe4 5.Nxe4 Nf6 6.Nxf6+ exf6 and we’ve transposed into the line in our main game except black’s b-pawn is on b5 while white’s a-pawn is on a3. Do these moves have anything to do with the position’s needs after 6...exf6?

















In the lesson, I didn’t answer this right away (I wanted to give him time to figure it out for himself). Instead, I returned to his game. However, for the readers of, here’s an example of what black’s trying to do (i.e., totally dominate the c4- and d5-squares):

1.e4 c6 2.Nc3 d5 3.d4 b5 4.a3 dxe4 5.Nxe4 Nf6 6.Nxf6+ exf6 7.Nf3 Bd6 8.Bd3 0-0 9.Be3 Be6 10.Nh4 g6 11.Nf3 Nd7 12.Qd2 Nb6 13.b3 a5 14.0-0 a4 15.b4 Qc7 and Black has made the c4- and d5-squares his own, C. Johnson - Silman, San Diego Action Ch. (30 minutes each for the game) 1990.
















Mr. Glawe was quite pleased with this move. And why not? It develops a piece and it prevents both  …Bd6 and …Qc7. Looks great! But, it’s this “logical” move that sets up white’s later suffering!

If we break down the position, we see that White has a healthy central pawn majority while black’s kingside majority is doubled (meaning that if we were to trade all the pieces here and end up in a King and pawn endgame, Black would quietly resign because White could easily make a passed pawn while Black can’t). One might think that White has a big advantage after 10.Bf4, but the problem is that white’s pieces aren’t exactly kicking the door down (note the white Knight, which doesn’t have access to the key e5- and g5-squares), and Black doesn’t really have any attackable weaknesses.

All this means that White has to use what he already has: the central majority. And he has to take the key d5-square away from black’s pieces. Then Black will be solid, but he won’t have much counterplay (a well-timed …c6-c5 is all he’s got).

Looking back on the odd series of moves I mentioned earlier (1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 b5!? 4.a3 dxe4 5.Nxe4 Nf6 6.Nxf6+ exf6), we can see that the inclusion of …b7-b5 and a2-a3 has given Black a grip on d5 (the b5-pawn doesn’t allow White to play c2-c4 “free of charge”).

By now white’s best move should be clear: 10.c4! makes sure the black Knight will never live on d5, and it also curtails the activity of black’s light-squared Bishop. In that case White would have a safe edge, while Black would have trouble finding counterplay.

[I’ll also add that I mentioned the general consensus of some modern theory writers who claim that White is just better in this line because he can eventually create a passed pawn with d4-d5. However, the Swedish Grandmaster Ulf Andersson played these positions with relish, and proved that even after multiple piece exchanges White wasn’t able to generate serious winning chances. This is something I might have discussed in more detail (rather than the minimal detail I gave to my student about this) – with several illustrative examples – if I was teaching a player who had a rating over 2200.].


Suddenly Black has a perfectly playable game thanks to his control over the c4 and d5 squares. It just took one innocent “blink” from White to give his opponent a new lease on life! What’s important for the purpose of this article is that White wasn’t aware that he blinked at all, which shows why feedback from a qualified chess teacher is so important (otherwise you’ll constantly repeat the same errors over and over).


Black is fine after 11.b3 Nd5 12.Bd2 (12.Bg3 Nb4) 12...Bd6.


Black’s thematic advance. Simpler was 11...Nd5 12.Bg3 Bd6, =.

12.Qc2 h6?

I would have preferred 12...g6, which covers the f5-square and restrains all of white’s pieces. Allowing Bh6 doesn’t bother Black in the least.


Another move that looks great. White develops, places his Rook in the center, and even has his Rook do a scary facedown with black’s Queen! However, this is a strategic blunder since it hands Black the d5-square on a silver platter. I told my student that he needed to improve his “square consciousness!”

13.dxc5 was forced, when White gets a small advantage: 13...Bxc5 14.Rad1 Qc8 15.b4! (giving stuff to get stuff. The more pacifistic 15.Rfe1 Nd5 16.Bg3 looks great for White, but it’s really not much after 16…Rd8 17.a3 a5! 18.c4 Nb6 intending …a5-a4, preventing the b2-pawn from ever guarding the target on c4.) 15…Be7 16.Nd4 and now:

a) 16...Rd8 17.Bh7+ Kh8 18.Be4 Nd5 19.Nxe6 fxe6 20.Bxd5 Rxd5 21.Rxd5 exd5 22.Qd3 Qe6 23.Rd1 Rc8 24.Be3 a6 25.a4 with an edge.

b) 16...Nd5 17.Bd2 Rd8 18.a3 a5 19.Nxe6 fxe6 20.c4 Nb6 21.Be3 isn’t what Black wants!
















Black is oblivious, no doubt worried that 13...c4 would give White a protected passed pawn (which, I should add, is going nowhere!). In fact, this is why both players didn’t give 13…c4 serious consideration: that passed d4-pawn terrified them. Of course, anyone who has read my book will know that I often talk about protected passed pawns, and shock them by saying that such a pawn can, on occasion, turn out to be a serious disadvantage! However, having an intellectual knowledge of this, and actually having the courage to allow it to occur, are two very different things.

Correct, of course, is 13...c4! 14.Be4 Nd5 15.Bg3 b5 (15...Bd6 16.Bxd6 Qxd6 17.Rfe1 Rfe8 18.Nd2 b5, =) 16.Rfe1 Bd6 17.Bxd6 Qxd6 when Black is very comfortable. Note how the true battleground in this game is centered around the c4- and d5-squares. If White can safely play his pawn to c4 then black’s pieces will lose a lot of their luster. If White can’t safely do this, then black’s conquest of d5 and piece activity will ensure him a nice position.


White’s preparing c3-c4, but this still gives Black the d5-square if he plays properly. 14.dxc5 was the way to go.


Nobody seems to care about squares and targets. Best was 14...c4 15.bxc4 Bxc4 when Black can be very happy since he’s become the master of both c4 and d5!


It was necessary to defend c3 and b4 by 15.Bd2 after which White stands a good deal better thanks to the threat of c4.


15...cxd4 is tempting but bad: 16.Nxd4 Qxc3 (16...Nxc3 17.Rc1 Bb4 18.Nxe6 fxe6 19.Qb2 Rd8 20.Bg6 intending a2-a3.) 17.Qe2 Qc8 18.Nxe6 Qxe6 (18...fxe6 19.Rc1 Qd7 20.Bb5) 19.Qf3.

However, 15...Rd8! followed by ...Bd6 is okay for Black.


Too much preparation (slow play/statics) in a dynamic (fast play/dynamics) situation. White needed to play 16.c4! Nb4 17.Qb1 Nxd3 18.Qxd3 cxd4 19.Nxd4 when Black would be under serious pressure: 19...Bd7 (19...Rd8 20.Qf3) 20.Rfe1 Bb4 21.Re5.


16...cxd4! 17.Nxd4 Qxc3 18.Bxf5 Qxc2 19.Bxc2 Bxa3 leaves White struggling for a draw.

17.Bh2 cxd4 18.c4!

After many wrong turns by both players, White finally wins the battle for the d5-square. All this pain could have been avoided if he had played 10.c4 instead of his mistaken 10.Bf4.

After 18…Nc7 19.Bxf4 Bxa3 20.Nxd4 Bc5 21.Nf5 Bxf5 22.Bxf5 Ne6 23.Rfe1 Qc6 24.Be4 Qb6 25.Be3 Bxe3 26.Rxe3 Rfd8 27.Rde1 Nd4 28.Qc3 Rac8 29.Bd5! White was completely in charge, but further mistakes allowed his opponent to escape with a draw.


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