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Exclusive Classroom Lesson: Caruana's Chess Secrets

Exclusive Classroom Lesson: Caruana's Chess Secrets

PedroPinhata
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What would you do if you could ask one of the best players in history any chess-related question? Thanks to the recent release of Chess.com's Classroom feature, eight members of our community had that chance.

GM Fabiano Caruana recently hosted a group lesson using the Classroom feature for a few lucky members who won the release contest. The 2022 Candidate went over one of his games against former FIDE world champion GM Ruslan Ponomariov and then moved on to a Q&A session where he shared his secrets of chess improvement with his students.

You can check out the whole lesson in this video:

Below you can read (or watch) the Q&A section of the Classroom lesson with Caruana and his sofa boys sidekick IM Danny Rensch:


Taking Advantage Of Your Initiative

@Lona_Chess: My question is just simply about taking advantage of the initiative when you have it. If you have any tips on how to effectively do that. Sometimes I can tell I have the initiative but I’m not always capitalizing on it the way I think I should be able to so I don’t know if you have any broad suggestions for that. Thank you!

Caruana: That’s a great question, and that’s really difficult to give just one piece of advice on. But, when you have that feeling that you’re the one who’s directing the game, that you’re the one who has the initiative, I think it’s very good to trust that feeling because sometimes feelings misguide us. And it happens to everyone, I think it also happens to me, I feel like I’m the one who’s directing the game but in fact, I was never better, and I can even give you some examples of that. But I think it happens to everyone all the time.

But, generally speaking, I always advise that you trust your intuition on that and if you feel like you have initiative I think it’s always better to go forward rather than go backward. If you have, let’s say, the general strategy of being as active and aggressive as possible, I think that will serve you better than trying not to spoil your position or trying to play too cautiously. I can’t say that’s broad advice because of course every position, every game will be different. But, as a general piece of advice, I would say that when you feel that you have an initiative, try to put pressure on your opponent and try to take advantage of what you think is the advantage, that you should use that.

Fabiano Caruana Chess Improvement
"Trust your intuition." Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Because also, chess is a game between two people, so your opponent also has doubts, and if they feel like they’re under pressure, if they’re psychologically a bit vulnerable because they don’t like their position, that’s something you should also take advantage of. And that will probably serve you in most of your games. Although, of course, this advice might sometimes lead you to overextend and to lose the game because you went a bit wild but that happens to everyone.

Chess is a game between two people, so your opponent also has doubts. If they feel like they’re under pressure or if they’re psychologically a bit vulnerable because they don’t like their position, that’s something you should also take advantage of.
— Fabiano Caruana

Danny: You know what? And I’d add too that it is something that you should unpack. Because at different stages of your career you might have different struggles. For example, Fabi mentioned that sometimes you think you’re better, and then you actually dive into it and find out “actually, I was never better and I was convinced the whole time that I was pressing.” So that reveals certain things like this: maybe you’re misevaluating certain things, maybe you’re underestimating your opponent’s chances on a regular basis, maybe you need to improve your positional understanding so that these things that you think you’re better at, maybe you’re not.

And then at other times, if you’re actually losing your opportunity converting initiative, and that is proven, right? The evaluation of the engine agrees with you, that can be over a consistent thing like, are you playing too fast in those moments? Are you not appreciating the resources your opponents have at the end of lines? We have those errors, right? Where you’re stopping a move short. I’m obviously adding some because I’m also coaching and teaching so I apologize, this is “learn with Fabi.” But I think it’s really important, Fabi, that people dive into this, right? Because there are mistakes we make in games and then there are mistakes we’re making on more macro levels, in our chess games, in all of them.

And the reason you should dive into it is that if you really find a consistent pattern, that you’re missing chances to convert on an advantage, there’s probably a pattern within that pattern, which could be a number of things. Like I said: playing too fast, not going deep enough in your calculation so you’re consistently missing that last resource of your opponent, etc. Right, Fabi? There could be patterns there that you start to understand and therefore you can improve your games on more macro levels, right?

Caruana: Yeah. I was just thinking about this, and I wanted to elaborate. Everyone misevaluates positions. It can be all of us in the chat, it can be Magnus, it can be any world champion in history have positions where they play worst than others, where they will make mistakes, fundamental mistakes, where they just don’t understand the position. That happens to everyone.

I can point to recent examples like, in the Candidates I lost to Anish Giri, I thought I was pressing, I thought I was better, I was playing actively. Like you mentioned, I thought I had the initiative but it turns out I didn’t, I was not better at all, it was equal and that feeling that I was better led me to overpress. And I lost that game.

Fabiano Caruana Secrets Improvement
Caruana lost his game against GM Anish Giri during the 2020-2021 Candidates. Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE.

So, I think the thing is that we talked about chess experience but we also need to separate general chess experience from… Well, there are different types of positions in chess, so you can say you’re an experienced chess player, that doesn’t mean that you know all positions equally well.

And if you’re trying to, let’s say, maximize your results, it might be helpful to try to steer the game in directions where you know the positions better. And I think people at the top try to do that, they try to make sure they don’t get into unfamiliar situations where things might go out of control because they don’t understand the position so well, but I think that’s also something that can be used at any level.

If you play opening systems where you have a lot of experience and you learn to play the positions well, you will be at a higher level than maybe your general level is. You might be, let’s say, a 2300 as an overall level, but in this type of position you’re 2400 because you know the ideas, you know the themes, and you’re comfortable. And you know what to look out for and things like that.

So, there are things that every player can do in terms of trying to control the game and steer the game in ways that they know exactly how to approach the position, that don’t get caught off guard, and things like that. So, that’s a bit broader than the initial question is but there’s a lot of stuff to think about, of course. Every chess player has to do that personally to try to improve you always have to continue thinking about “what am I doing wrong? Where am I making my mistakes and how can I improve on them?”

Danny: Awesome stuff. I’ll hold back on adding even more because I love that stuff. It’s chess psychology. “Chess is psychology,” as Gregory Kaidanov puts it. Alright, thank you for the question, Daniel, that was awesome.

How To Become A Grandmaster

Adewumi: How do you think as a grandmaster? Is there something specific that makes you a grandmaster? Is there something you have to do?

Caruana: That’s a good question. It’s difficult to say because everyone reaches their chess progress in different ways. Everyone becomes grandmaster in a different way, and everyone becomes an international master, 2700, or whatever level it is in a different way. I don’t think that there’s one formula for becoming grandmaster.

Danny: There’s not like a puzzle you have to solve or something? There’s not like a map that you have to find? I’ve been looking for it my whole life. Go ahead lol

Fabi: I think everyone will have a different answer to this question. If I had to give advice on how to reach grandmaster would be the same advice I give on how to reach 2000 if you’re an 1800 player or how to reach FIDE master if you’re a 2000 player, which is kind of similar to what we were just talking about.

Fabiano Caruana Classroom Lesson
Caruana shares his views on chess improvement. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

You have to try to identify your mistakes because everyone has weaknesses and you have to try to work on those things, so it’s very much an internal process. It’s not just, I’ll study these tactics and these openings and improve because most people, if not all people at some point hit a plateau where they hit that wall, where they’re struggling in their progress.

And very often I think that the reason people aren’t able to make that next step, or they reach a certain level and they just stay there, it’s because it’s uncomfortable to admit that we have weaknesses in our play and we have to deal with them. If you can find a way to correct those mistakes, wherever level you’re at, that will be the surest way to improve.

Very often I think that the reason people aren't able to make that next step, or they reach a certain level and they just stay there, is because it's uncomfortable to admit that we have weaknesses in our play and we have to deal with them. If you can find a way to correct those mistakes, whichever level you're at, that will be the surest way to improve.
— Fabiano Caruana

Danny: Good stuff. Well, we’re going to continue here and remind everybody that if anything chess-specific happens, I’ll try to bring it up on the board. But I think it’s probably expected a lot of the questions might be based on your general improvement and things like that. So, this is great, we’ll keep rolling along.

How To Study Opening Lines

Danny: @Jomaboe, you ready to go, man?

@Jomaboe: First of all, thanks for the opportunity. The question I have is: how does someone at your level or at any level, how should they study lines? For example, I tried to study some lines in the Tartakower Caro-Kann today, and it’s really hard for me to differentiate between these different variations. Do you just repeat lines thousands and thousands of times or do you just have a miracle way or something to memorize them?

Caruana: So, just to elaborate, you’re struggling with the memorization aspect of openings, yes?

@Jomaboe: Differentiating between this line and that line where maybe a bishop was somewhere and in the other line it isn’t. Where there are differences between maybe here I should play the move or here I shouldn’t.

Caruana: That’s a great question. It’s also something that top players struggle with. I know I’m not the only one who’s struggling with it because I’ve spoken to other players and I know that one of the biggest challenges is you analyze a lot of stuff, most people analyze on a computer nowadays because we have really powerful hardware and powerful software that allows us to really delve deep into an opening or into a position we’re interested in. And we do great analysis and then we come to the board and realize we don’t remember half of it and we don’t understand the other half.

And that happens to everyone. It’s certainly happened to me, so I’m still trying to find my way in terms of how I deal with that, how I best memorize positions, and how I best understand them. Because that’s the other thing. A lot of times we see a computer line, it tells us that “this is good,” but that could be based on crazy tactics way down the road. Just because we see a number it doesn’t mean that this number is easy or that it has any practical impact on a human’s game. It could be that, you know that the position is +2 but it’s just too difficult to figure out for you on the board. It’s not just about having good analysis, it’s also about understanding the position that you’re looking at intimately, so I think a lot of that comes in over-the-board work.

Fabiano Caruana Lesson Classroom Improvement
Over-the-board work is essential for learning opening theory. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

So even though we have all these great tools to analyze and to understand chess with computers, and databases, and all that stuff, I still think that over-the-board work, thinking about a position over-the-board is something that you just can’t replicate that value in computer work. You really need to get down to a position, thinking about it on your own, not just looking at what the computer says. And that’s something everyone struggles with as well.

Everyone who’s seriously analyzing openings has a tendency to overtrust the computer, even though we know the computer is right in most positions, pretty much in all positions, that doesn’t necessarily help you over the board. I’ll just give you one example, because it’s something I remember very vividly, about one and a half, two years ago. I was preparing for a player and I noticed he played a certain opening in that tournament. And the player was Aryan Tari. He was playing Black and he played this in the tournament.

Fabiano Caruana Q&A
GM Aryan Tari's opening.

Basically, this line is known to not be very good, he played it with Black against a strong player, and the game was eventually drawn, but that isn’t really relevant towards the opening. His opponent played 4.d4 and they soon reached a position where a strong computer, a strong Stockfish that we were running on many cores on the cloud said +4. But to us, me and my coach at the time, GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov, we were looking at it and to our eyes, it’s just looked like a total mess. It said +4 and normally that should be the point where you say “ok, we’re going to stop looking at this because the game is over.” But we looked at it and it looked totally unclear. And so, for some reason, we had this idea to run an early version of Fritz. Probably some of you guys are familiar with the classic, the OG chess engine, Fritz.

Danny: I remember when I could still beat Fritz 4. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Caruana: We were using Fritz 13, so super strong by Fritz standards, and we were running at like two cores or something. So, not 80 cores, not the 100 cores or whatever that people use these days, and Fritz said it was pretty much equal, like +0.2 or -0.2. It’s something that was basically saying that this position is totally unclear. And I was thinking, “how is that possible that two quite strong computers, one gives an evaluation like the game is over and the other one gives an evaluation ‘I don’t really know what’s going on, you have to analyze it’.”

So, we made them play a game and it only became clear to Fritz that the position was winning for White like 30 moves later. I was kind of shocked. I was like “how is it possible?” It wasn’t like White is tactically winning and Fritz didn’t see it. It was that this was just winning and it was way outside the horizon, not in the tactical sense, but just in a positional sense, almost. In a long game, White just wins. And we know that this early Fritz is way stronger than Magnus or any human player on the planet. So, just by that, we realized that even though this is a winning position and this computer shows it, for a human that doesn’t really mean anything unless you actually know how to win. Over the board, you can say it’s +4 and White’s winning or we can say “well, this is actually an unclear position and anything can happen.”

I’m just using that example to say not to overtrust computers because they’ve gone a bit too strong. They’re just living in another world now. It’s very helpful when you’re analyzing the openings to look at it still from a human perspective.

Fabi Caruana Lesson Improvement Chess
Learning what works on a human level is key. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

It’s difficult, but looking at it over-the-board and trying to think, you know, I play this and what’s White’s job after fxe4? And try to think about that. I try to use that tool myself when I think about positions. Let’s say I’m analyzing a line and I have all these crazy variations and I’d just like to, when I’m away from the computer, just think about the position in my head and what moves come to mind from a purely intuitive human perspective.

[Do not] overtrust computers because they've gotten a bit too strong. They're just living in another world now. It's very helpful when you're analyzing the openings to look at it from a human perspective.
— Fabiano Caruana

Danny: Right. I was going to add to that. I mean, that was fascinating, even for this lowly IM. To even give a little more context, Jamaboe, I would say that there’s a difference between memorizing the move and then memorizing the why. And I do think, obviously, when Fabi tells the story about trying to solve Aryan Tari’s openings and that level of depth, maybe we’re not all doing that, but I do think, and Fabi maybe you can help me here, I do think there’s a process where a lot of times, when people are going over their games in rapid fashion, or they’re trying to memorize their opening repertoire, you can get a bit robotic. And actually, two bad things can happen there.

One, you don’t actually understand, as you said, in the Caro-Kann, why the bishop should be on f5 versus d7 in the advanced or g4. Are you actually taking the time to process the why? Not just the current position, but in the middle games that occur, there’s a reason the bishop on f5 is consistently misplaced because of x, y, z, right? And I think that committing that to memory is much more powerful for your chess than memorizing that on move 13 the bishop should go to d7 versus f5, that’s the first thing I’d say.

And the second thing, I’m going to ask you this, Fabi, and I’m asking this question for myself. I’ve actually found that it could be counterproductive to do too much of that before a tournament because it puts your brain in a space that is maybe not the most powerful for critical thinking, which is basically, you’re analyzing the position to the point that you’re willing to play it. It doesn’t mean you’re actually ready to play it.

And then studying too much openings, where all you’re doing is memorizing where the piece goes and why the piece goes there, it could be doing harmful things to your game, Jamaboe, in addition to the fact that you’re not actually remembering your lines as effectively as you’d like to. So, Fabi, I know that I just added more to that question but I think that’s a really important question, a lot of people struggle with this. So, more context, please, can you? Based on some of the things I said.

Caruana: Yes, I think that we have to be careful not to also harm our chess with all this technology because it’s very easy to get into that purely analytical space where you’re doing good analysis and you create a file, and it’s very presentable, and everything is correct and all of that. But that doesn’t help you at the board when you get there, because that’s when you have to think on your own.

Fabiano Caruana Lesson
Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

So, one of the other helpful things that I do for myself is I like to go through the high-level games in the opening variation or the position which were played in the past, even way in the past. And you could look at them with the computer, you can look at them on your own and try to think about them but those games are the most valuable because they show how people were thinking about the position.

They show the pitfalls of people, going through the typical mistakes, the directions where a human might look to first, and I think top players use that a lot which is they have an idea and very often you have an idea which is dangerous but is not objectively leading to an advantage, and then you want to test it against another person because you want to see what their intuition, what their first instinct is. And you can’t get that when you analyze it because, you know, your feeling in a position is colored by the knowledge that the computer gave you, right? That this position is a bit better for White, this is winning for Black… So, very often that task of “what’s the human instinct here?” is given to another player.

You play a training game against someone in this position, you say “this is my idea and now it’s on you to figure out what to do over the board” and that gives you a feeling for how a human approaches the position.

I’ll be the first to say this technology is incredibly helpful and it’s led to the development of players becoming stronger, younger, and the next generation and the generation after that will be stronger than the previous, that’s, I think, undoubtedly true, and most of it is due to our knowledge and the technology we have that allows us to learn so much so quickly.

Fabiano Caruana Lesson Chess.com
Technology is helpful but you can't overtrust computers. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

But you have to use it wisely, you have to make sure you’re still thinking about the position and you’re not letting the computer do the thinking for you. So you use it as a tool rather than, you know, it’s just taking control of everything and you’re just there to press buttons and to create neat files.

That’s a problem that I think anyone who seriously analyzes openings will fall into that, including players that are at the very top. And I know that Magnus tries to avoid that as best as he can by trying to avoid the computer as much as he can, of course, he can’t avoid it completely, it’s super helpful and important to use, but trying to make sure that it doesn’t affect his play, it doesn’t get in the way of his understanding of the position.

Danny: Good stuff. Yes, we say “don’t just press spacebar.” Spacebar, next best move, or whatever. With great power comes great responsibility. Don’t overuse the computers! I will double down on what Fabi said too, Jamaboe, and then we’re moving on from this. Training games, so important, right? Just set up the training position from move 13, move 15, move 20, it’s going to be much more effective probably to your understanding of the position. A lot of people spend too much time doing other things, I think training games are a really powerful way to get better.

The Difference Between Preparation And Playing Chess

@KPInfinite: Where is the difference between being prepared and playing chess? You returned to the board in the Candidates [2021] and the first thing you did was you just took MVL apart because you had spent so much time working over his Najdorf prep. That’s a fair assessment, right?

Caruana: Yeah that’s fair for that game sure.

@KPInfinite: And then when you returned to I think it was the FIDE Grand Swiss where you had a game against Maxim Chigaev, you just again went full automatic and almost it seemed like you were taking him to the same exact line in preparation. So where do you think the meta is going as far as, we’re no longer starting the game on move one, we’re starting the game on move 14, we’re starting the game on move 20? We’re out of book like, now, as opposed to all the way down the line and how does that … how do we as aspiring players sort of keep ourselves from falling into the trap of being overprepared when we should just be trying to figure out … don’t blunder a piece!

Caruana: Yeah I think that’s a great question. And it goes back also to the previous question in some ways, which is that, yes, preparation is important. At certain levels it’s super important and we know that players who play the world championship, we saw last world championship, they come with a ton of ideas in the opening because they want to be the one to get the first surprise in, and they’re just trying to increase their edge. They’re both super strong players, they’re capable of winning good positions, they’re capable of losing bad positions, but they just want to get that slight edge on their opponent because they know that they’re super close in level.

That isn’t going to bring the same dividends to the vast majority of players because for them it’s very small nuances they’re trying to improve on, and for most people, games will come down to serious mistakes that happen in the middlegame or in the endgame. And they might not necessarily be blunders. It could be, of course, that if you hang a piece it doesn’t matter how many good moves you made in the opening or in the entire game because one mistake can entirely spoil it. But it could also be positional mistakes, not understanding the position, getting tired at the end of the game, mistakes well into the endgame, so there’s a lot of places to improve before you want to focus on the opening aspect. It’s just that for top players, they’ve already worked on most of those aspects and now they feel like their best chance of improvement and keeping up with other people is investing in opening work.

Caruana MVL Improvement secrets
Caruana defeated GM Maxime-Vachier Lagrave thanks largely to his opening preparation. Photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE.

And the other thing is if you want to completely avoid opening preparation, there are ways to do that at pretty much every level. One of the revolutions in chess recently has been that you don’t just have to play main lines, and there aren’t just a few things that are playable or good openings. It used to be that people were principled, they thought that with White you should play e4 and go for all the main lines and try to beat your opponent in the opening. And I know just from speaking to players who were at their peak in the 90s or earlier than that, that they basically felt like your opponent plays e4 and there’s almost nowhere to run to as Black.

And things have changed massively. Computers just taught us that pretty much anything is playable in the opening. You can play e4 and that’s a legitimate way, and all the main lines, or you can play Nf3 and b3 and that’s just as legitimate an approach. And that’s just a stylistic difference. If you want to go for direct lines and try to put pressure on your opponent, try to take advantage of his lack of knowledge or her lack of knowledge potentially in the openings and try to get as big an advantage as possible you can do that, that’s one approach. Or if you want to play more of a system like the London, like d4, Nf3, b3, d4, Nf3, g3, you can do that too. And it’s just a different approach.

Fabiano Caruana Notes Chess.com Lesson
Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

So the best advice I can give is just to know whatever system you play, to know it well, rather than to think everyone’s playing the Berlin or the Marshall so that’s the right opening to play. I don’t think that’s the case anymore, I think you can play the Marshall successfully or the Berlin successfully or the Taimanov successfully. All these openings are inherently playable. Not just from a subjective point of view like, I know it well my opponent doesn’t know it as well and I’ll have a leg up on him, that’s important, but also from an objective point of view, we found out that a lot of things which were previously considered dubious or unplayable are actually fully legitimate openings.

So chess has actually been enriched a lot in how computers taught us that you can approach the game from the opening to the middlegame in a huge variety of ways. It’s not like people used to think that there’s a certain few openings that are good and you should play those. People realize you can basically play anything. You can look at the tournament going on now, the FIDE Grand Prix, and see every game has a different opening. One game is a French, like today Bacrot played the French against Nakamura and got a good position out of the opening, there’s Catalans, I think it’s a testament to the richness of chess that people can approach the game in any way and it works out fine.

Chess has actually been enriched a lot in how computers taught us that you can approach the game from the opening to the middlegame in a huge variety of ways. It’s not like people used to think that there’s a certain few openings that are good and you should play those. People realize you can basically play anything.
— Fabiano Caruana

@KPInfinite: For sure, it’s kind of like everything’s playable until you don’t know how to play it.

Fabiano Caruana Classroom Lesson
 Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Caruana: Yeah if you don’t know how to play something whether it’s a great opening or even like, there are still dubious openings but if you don’t know how to play against them they’re still going to be super tough to face. I know that from personal experience. You play against a guy who’s playing the Alekhine, and you think well, we kind of know that this is not the best opening in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy at all and if you look at Magnus he’s played dubious openings with success because he tries to learn something about them, tries to find out where people tend to make mistakes and it’s a subjectively playable approach as well.

Danny: Yep. It’s funny I think that a lot of the conversation about openings in some ways are dominated below certain levels partly because I always say it’s the thing that people feel the most in control of fixing, and it’s the easiest thing to jump from one to the other when the reality is even at the highest level in the world chess championship Ian Nepomniachtchi did not lose the match to Magnus because of the opening, right?

And at the highest levels of chess everywhere blunders are made because of other things and generally people don’t want to put in the time to do hours of endgame study or really solving puzzles and that’s coming from the guy who’s guilty of doing everything he can to gamify the chess experience. People love puzzles because we’ve made them fun and they love that they’re 2300 even though maybe they’re 1400 or 1500 in chess, right? So there’s a part of that that we invest in to try and keep people interested in chess but the bottom line is that real improvement doesn’t necessarily come from doing what’s easy and it’s easy to switch the opening and learn new moves, and I think that that’s a really hard thing to remember but true.

How To Deal With Pressure

@RubenJS95: First of all thanks for the opportunity. I was wondering, how do you deal with pressure? Because I myself get pretty nervous before a competition match and I can’t imagine how it might feel when playing a Candidates or even for a World Championship.

Caruana: Yeah that’s a very important thing. Pressure, stress, it affects everyone. It’s just a totally human side to chess that everyone is dealing with this and some people react to it better than others. Those are inherent traits that you can’t really entirely change but you can work on. I think it is helpful to realize that if you’re under pressure it’s a very high chance that your opponent is also under pressure.

Chess is in some ways an individual game that we’re all on our own at the board but we also have to think about it not just from a purely individual point of view but also that our opponents are dealing with all the same things. They also don’t want to lose and they are afraid of losing, and they’re worried about what’s going to happen, if they’ll get surprised in the opening, if they’ll blunder, all these things. So I think that’s helpful to realize that it’s not just something that you struggle with, it’s something that everyone from the top-level down, including all your opponents, will also struggle with.

Fabiano Caruana Lesson Chess.com Classroom
Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

In terms of say purely concrete ways of dealing with it, I think that let’s say you go to a sports psychologist and they might give you some methods, some breathing exercises things like that that might help deal with stress and pressure because it is something that is in your head, it’s something that can be released. There are physical ways with dealing with it. So I took some sessions with a sports psychologist a few years ago. BBB

Chess is in some ways an individual game (...) but we also have to think about it not just from a purely individual point of view but also that our opponents are dealing with all the same things. They also don't want to lose and are afraid of losing, and they're worried about what's going to happen: if they'll get surprised in the opening, if they'll blunder, all these things. So I think that's helpful to realize that it's not just something that you struggle with, it's something that everyone from the top level down, including all your opponents, will also struggle with.
— Fabiano Caruana

We went through breathing exercises and dealing with these issues. It’s also something that comes with experience. And also comes partly with, we naturally become more nervous or stressed when we’re dealing with a new situation. That’s just a normal thing, that’s not just in chess but it’s your first time speaking in public or first time running a marathon, not that I’ve ever run a marathon. It’s going to be more nerve-wracking the first time. So the more games you play and the more you deal with important tournament games, important tournament situations where you’re potentially playing for some big money or playing for your final norm or you’re going to get the master title with this game, whatever your goal is, the first time will always be the most nervous and nerve-wracking and with time and experience you will just be naturally better adjusted to deal with these things. So that’s something that just as humans we adjust to through trial and error.

Practice will also help with that, but yeah it’s something that everyone has to deal with, it’s not just–I know it definitely feels very personal at the time that you’re stressed and under a lot of pressure, but it’s something that everyone is dealing with.

Danny: So is that like the equivalent of if you’re on the stage just picture everybody naked? Everybody else is more embarrassed than you so that makes you feel better, that’s kind of the advice?

Caruana: Yeah I’ve never tried that one.

Danny: That’s how I get through my shows. I just imagine that everyone watching me is naked and it makes me feel a lot better. Just kidding, moving on!

Improving Your Visualization

@maxmlynek: We hear many times that chess is 99% tactics, and that’s rather obvious, and when you recognize the tactical pattern when you know it you will recognize it immediately when you see it on the board. But another problem is recognizing it many moves ahead. And this question came to me when you were talking about your game with Ponomariov. I am wondering, am I assuming right that the position after you calculated many moves ahead, maybe right until the checkmate, was the position that the board before your eyes was as clear as the position in front of you on the chessboard? Am I thinking correctly?

Caruana: So from what I understand this is a question on visualization.

@maxmlynek: Definitely, yeah.

Caruana: So visualization is probably the most important thing in chess because I think that’s where mistakes and blunders, if we strip them down to the bare essence of them, that’s where they come from. Which is that we’re not seeing the board correctly because when we see it in front of us, we see it perfectly correctly. Then we have to calculate in advance and the farther, the more different the position gets from the position on the board the foggier it gets in our head. And that’s true for everyone although, of course, the best players will visualize the best, and people who struggle with visualization will make mistakes in their calculation, in their seeing tactics, or even in their positional evaluation of something.

Because all of it is just tied together, you can misevaluate a position because it just doesn’t look clear in your head. And it’s difficult for me to quantify what counts as clarity when you’re looking at a position and you know where the pieces are some people let’s say see a visual representation of a board, some people see something else, I don’t know exactly what everyone sees in their head when they’re looking at a position that is different from the board in front of them. But yeah this is super important for tactics and for calculation and this is where mistakes come from.

Visualization is probably the most important thing in chess because I think that's where mistakes and blunders, if we strip them down to the bare essence of them, that's where they come from.
— Fabiano Caruana

And the way to train that I would say is through practice. If you’re doing calculation exercises constantly, that trains you, even though you may never get that exact position over the board. Let’s say you’re sitting down to try to solve a Benko study, just to give one example. That trains your calculation in a way that you might not even realize, but it will help you visualize and calculate in your games. And also when it comes to calculation, I think a lot of it is discipline, a lot of it is not stopping too early, things like that, which they’re mistakes that you can solve. It just takes a great deal of discipline. And I can tell you that the mistakes that I’ve made, the very serious ones, they’ve very often come from just not seeing the board correctly. Sometimes even the board in front of you you don’t see correctly. I just blundered my rook in my last tournament because I didn’t see the knight could move backward [laugh].

Danny: We weren’t going to talk about that but since you brought it up, I mean Rb6 bro?

Caruana: Yeah. [DR laugh.] I think also with mistakes like that, they don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re an accumulation of a lot of factors and in the case of that game it was a pretty lousy game from both of us, it was a bit out of control and once you lose control your chess ability can start to fall apart. Once you no longer feel like you’re in control, once you feel like, I missed half the things in this game and I’ve misevaluated positions and I’ve missed wins and I’ve been losing at some point, all of that is stuck in your head somehow and it leads to mistakes later on down the road.

It’s very difficult on the spot to keep readjusting to chaotic situations, that’s why the best players try to keep things under control so that they don’t have to deal with all the wild emotions and all the stress and tension and nervous energy that you expend when you lose control of the game.

When we talk about blunders sometimes we think "how can a player miss that?" because it’s just so simple. But all of this is the accumulation of what happens throughout a game psychologically, emotionally, and in terms of your energy reserves. All of these are things that you have to factor in from the start of the game.

Fabiano Caruana Chess.com Lesson Classroom
Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

If you don’t feel like you are ready to play a super complex and wild game, you feel like you won’t have the energy for that type of game then you shouldn’t go for that, you should try to control the situation from the start. If you feel like “I have all the energy in the world today” then maybe you can go for it and try to throw caution to the wind. But I think the important thing is that mistakes, they don’t happen on their own. It’s maybe in some ways detective work, you have to look through all of the game and all of the calculations and all of the emotions you were feeling and backtrack to why it led to that mistake.

When we talk about blunders sometimes we think 'how can a player miss that?' because it's just so simple. But all of this is the accumulation of what happens throughout a game psychologically, emotionally, and in terms of your energy reserves. All of these are things that you have to factor in from the start of the game.
— Fabiano Caruana

Danny: Fascinating stuff. You know I’ll say Max there are a lot of different exercises and things that have been suggested over the years as far as how to build visualization muscle, so… I’m willing to give you some advice on that if you message me later, all kinds of different Russian chess school tricks…

@maxmlynek: I saw your video series on that.

Danny: The video taps into some of them, but it’s super important, like Fabiano said I think arguably it’s the most important thing. It’s easy to see it when it’s right in front of you, but seven moves down the road… Anyway, definitely good stuff!

Wasted Chess Study

@ShasTheGoat: I would like to preface my question with a little story. I played chess for about one year and then I joined an under 1800 tournament. I spent about one month studying every single Najdorf line I could find on Chessable. I studied The Amateur’s Mind by Jeremy Silman, the entire book, I just wrote it all out and memorized all of it. Then when I actually sat down at the board and started playing for my first time over the board, I didn’t get a Najdorf a single time, I didn’t get to play my prep at all, and all the knowledge just flew out the window.

What happens, why do you just sit down at the board and forget everything and just start looking at moves and just intuitively thinking, instead of actually recalling what you studied?

Caruana: That’s a great question because I can think of things that happened in my career which were similar. You prepare something before a tournament, an opening, that fascinates you and then you don’t get a chance to play it and it feels like you wasted your time.

But I actually don’t think that you wasted your time at all because the knowledge that you got from studying the Najdorf and going through all those courses and looking at all the games you looked at, that’s knowledge that doesn’t go away. And it might not happen next tournament that you get those Najdorf positions and use the knowledge and positions and variations that you learned, but at some point in your tournament career or your chess playing you’ll get those positions and you’ll use that knowledge.

Fabiano Caruana Chess.com Lesson
You never waste your time when you're studying chess. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

So whatever work you do you might not see the immediate benefits of it but it’s still useful. So I would say don’t be discouraged by that experience because at some point that work that you did will help you and it’s just generally, you should think of it more as you’re learning about chess, not that there’s a time limit for “I have to use this knowledge,” but you’re continuing to learn about chess, you’re getting better, you’re improving with all the work that you do and with all the games that you look at and it doesn’t matter if it brings dividends in the next tournament because at some point it will. Sometimes you have to be very patient to use the stuff that you do but at some point, it will pay off.

So I would say don’t change that, continue studying what you find interesting and you will at some point be able to use it. That’s something that also I had to learn with experience because it is disappointing and sometimes it even happens in a more direct way, let’s say you find an idea in an opening that you want to use and you think nobody knows it and you don’t get a chance to play it and six months later someone plays it. And now everyone knows it and you feel like you just [chuckle] you just wasted all your time.

But now I don’t think of it as wasting time, it’s just you work on chess to improve yourself and if bad luck happens and someone uses that idea that you found first then that’s just how it happens sometimes but it’s still good to do that work. It teaches you about the game and all you should really be trying to focus on is increasing your knowledge and improving your play.

And also it sounds like you had a good tournament anyway so maybe that chess work that you did, even though it didn’t directly show its benefit, maybe there was still something there that you got your mind on chess and you were primed to play in some way and that helped out anyway.

Fabiano Caruana Chess.com Lesson Studying Chess
Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Danny: Good stuff and I’ll even say too that not everyone has problems with others stealing their novelties Fabiano like you do at the high levels, but I’ve had many times too where like you said you’re working on something, focused on it, appreciating that labor of the love, you learned to love the process and when you do that I’ve had times where I prepared specifically for something and then literally eight months later had a chance to use it right?

Sometimes it just doesn’t always happen in the way you think it’s going to and there’s definitely a lot of truth to that. What is this saying about chess, anyone can learn it but nobody can master it or whatever? You’re gonna be doing that forever. Good pep talk, Fabi.

How To Maintain Motivation

@CryptoFlop: So how does one maintain motivation? Because sometimes I’ll play really badly in rapid games, where I’m missing everything and say “alright screw this” and play 30 straight games of hyperbullet then not touch chess for a week. How do I deal with that?

Caruana: That’s a good question because it’s something that I struggle with too. My motivation rises and dips and I don’t even necessarily know why. I think that’s a purely personal thing, why you might be motivated at times. It might be due to your chess results.

Sometimes you have some bad results and you want to put chess down for a while. And I would say if that’s the case then you should probably do that. It’s better to take a break from playing or from studying rather than burn yourself out and maybe if you take a break it will help you when you come back into studying chess or playing a tournament or playing online, help you find some renewed motivation.

Fabiano Caruana Lesson Classroom
You should learn how to renew your motivation to study chess. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

But yeah that’s something I personally struggle with so if I knew how to turn motivation on all the time I would use that for myself [laugh] so I don’t have a trick for that. It’s just something that comes and goes and you also have to find what works for you when you’re unmotivated or even when you’re tilted, right? We all have those moments when we lose a bunch of games or we play a bunch of bad games and we start to tilt and the instinct is to keep on playing but sometimes it’s good to put it down for a bit, take a break, and refocus your head a bit and then maybe you’ll come back stronger from that.

Are you enjoying the Classroom feature? What was your favorite question that Caruana was asked? Let us know in the comments below!

PedroPinhata
Pedro Pinhata

Pedro Pinhata is a Sr. Digital Content Writer for Chess.com who writes articles, feature announcements, event guides, and more. He has been playing chess since 2019 and lives in Brazil.

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