In Defense of Chess Instruction
[Scene: Courtroom hearing on Chess Coaching. Dan on witness stand, a few hundred inquisitive spectators watching the proceedings...]
Bard: You are aware of the accusation that chess coaches can't really help people play chess better - that they are all stealing money?
Bard: I take it that you, as a full-time chess coach, disagree?
Bard: Even though the great Botvinnik himself is famously quoted as saying "Chess cannot be taught. Chess can only be learned."
Dan: Yes, and I should note that Botvinnik was supposedly teaching a chess class when he said that!...
Dan (continuing): ...Botvinnik meant that chess, like other complex mental activities such as reading, requires the brain to become familiar with both patterns and ideas, and that can only be done by repetitious exposure, as those learning how to read must do. I discuss this in the first chapter of my Everyone's Second Chess Book, "Learning, Chunking, and Chess Mistakes." Yet there are many respectable reading teachers.
Bard: And even Bobby Fischer said that he did it all by himself.
Dan: Yes, and every day after school young Bobby would go over to my coach's coach John Collins' house, and analyze with players like Collins and his disciples Bill Lombardy, the Byrne brothers, etc (my college coach was Donald Byrne). Later, it's true he did not have a Soviet crew helping prepare for strong events or analyzing his adjourned games, but that doesn't mean his development happened entirely while locked in a closet. Young Bobby was a frequent player at the Manhattan Chess Club and a participant in a multitude of long time control tournaments up and down the East Coast. Almost all good players either had strong chess coaches for a while or were able to "hang out" in strong chess clubs and analyze with strong players for a couple of years. One IM called this "immersing yourself in the chess culture", a prerequisite for internationally titled play. When young Fabiano Caruana was still living in NY, I asked his father Lou what Fabiano did to improve. His answer was that Fabiano took three lessons a week from different chess coaches and played in an average of three rated chess tournaments a week! No wonder Fabiano, now representing Italy, is up to #5 in the world.
Bard: Everyone seems to learn from chess books, but only a few players have coaches.
Dan: Yes, getting information by book or computer or video is an important part of the learning process (see The Theory of Chess Improvement at http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman54.pdf ). And it should go without saying that any strong player got there mostly by his own work and not by the instructor ((See The Seven Percent Solution at http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman130.pdf); the instructor is more of a very helpful guide: to get the proper feedback you need a human to help. I never saw a book look at someone's game and say "Yes, you read me, but you made all your moves in 17 seconds or less despite having 60 minutes on your clock, so you hardly tried to use what you read. Slow down and we'll learn to analyze better!"
[Another murmur of approval from audience]
Bard: You mention computers. The best are rated about 3200; they can find a player's missed tactics better than any human instructor.
Dan: Yes, absolutely. I use them after each one of my games for that purpose. But finding missing tactics is only a very small part of what an instructor does and, even there, an instructor can show you both when and how to look for tactics using cues like the Seeds of Tactical Destruction (http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman05.pdf and http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman24.pdf), much less all the other chess skills that need to be developed.
Bard: So you are claiming everyone needs an instructor to improve?
Dan: [stands in protest] No! That's patently absurd. [Calms down and sits down] Many players, especially in the early learning stages, can improve greatly just by playing many games, doing the standard "improvement" reading about basic tactics and strategy, and reading instructional game books like Chernev's Logical Chess Move by Move and McDonald's Chess: the art of logical thinking. They can augment the tactics with modern tools like Chess.com's Tactics Trainer or Chess Mentor. But eventually most hit a "wall" which they may or may not be able to get past by themselves, assuming they have the awareness and inclination.
Bard: So one can become a good player without ever hiring an instructor?
Dan: Yes, but much of the answer depends on your definition of "good". I am sure a few of the 2,000 or so GMs never hired an instructor but, as I noted earlier, they probably had someone who performed a similar "feedback" role (see The Improvement Feedback Loop at http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman98.pdf ). It is also important to note that many casual players don't want to work really hard to become very strong players; they are happy learning here and there and just have fun playing the game and there's nothing wrong with that. If you are having fun and don't want to improve then hiring an instructor is likely a waste.
Bard: Given enough time, couldn't the players have done everything themselves that an instructor could provide? For example, they know when they are playing too fast or too slow and can work on that if they wish.
Dan: No, in almost all cases I don't believe so. Having worked with about 1,000 private students, it's pretty easy to see that many get into bad habits that they often don't recognize, or don't know how to get out of those habits. When I wrote my first article on "Hope Chess" almost 15 years ago (http://www.chesscafe.com/text/real.pdf ), I got several emails from players around the world, all to the effect "Aha! I have read many chess books but I never read one that explained to me why I was such a poor player. Why didn't someone else write that before?" I, like those players, had started out with the false, but easily gotten, premise, that I would wait until my opponent moved and try to figure out how to meet his threats (see Beginner Misconceptions at http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman77.pdf ). But luckily I, unlike many, was eventually able to realize that many threats cannot be met, so playing very slowly to anticipate those threats on every move is a necessary prerequisite, although certainly not sufficient, to become a good player (See The Three Times for Checks, Captures, and Threats at http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman125.pdf).
Bard: Aha! Well, if you did it, then everyone else can, too!
[Audience murmurs in approval]
Dan: Possibly, but in my experience some players are too busy reading opening books, playing fast in slow games, playing exclusively fast games, and/or doing other things to realize that their thought process is the root of many of their problems. Thought process and the under-appreciated time management are close cousins. Those are two areas where a chess coach can be very helpful.
Bard: So you think you can help everyone become much stronger?
Dan: No, there are a number of reasons I can't help everyone. Sometimes it is because of chemistry (you have to "click" with your students); other times once they realize they have to do most of the work they look for other miracle cures, others don't realize the immense work involved and don't want to play slow and seriously enough, and several other reasons I might not be able to help. In some cases, another instructor may be better suited helping that student achieve his/her goals (see Finding a Good Instructor at http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman21.pdf). Nevertheless, I have many students who will tell you I "clicked" with them and did help them become much stronger. Howard Stern is a good example; he went from near beginner with an online rating of about 900 up to a max of 1800 in four-and-a-half years. And there are many others who claim via email or post that I never gave them a lesson but my writings were instrumental in some of the great improvement strides they made (thanks for letting me know!). Recent World Youth U14 Co-Champion Cameron Wheeler apparently falls into that category (he won Silver medal on tiebreak - congratulations!).
Bard: Interesting. Many chess coaches spend a lot of time teaching openings and endgames. So isn't that the areas where they are most earning their fee?
Dan: Yes, in those cases likely so. But I agree with GM Rowson in Chess for Zebras when he writes that he eventually figured out that giving adult intermediate players more chess knowledge does not necessarily make them better players. I had also come to that conclusion long before reading Rowson's book.
Bard: So openings and endgame knowledge is not helpful?
Dan: No, I did not say that; that's not remotely true. Everyone needs some opening and endgame knowledge. It's not that Black and White. GM Soltis puts it well with regards to endgames when he writes in Studying Chess Made Simple that for players under 2000 general endgame knowledge is far more helpful than specific endgame knowledge. This perfectly is in synch with my theory is that the stronger the player, the more he needs to learn specific information and the weaker the player, the more he needs to learn general information. For example a beginner needs to be taught that the main goal of the opening is to quickly, efficiently, effectively, and safely activate all the pieces. Getting control of the center and castling the king into safety are also important strategic goals. And the most helpful principle is "Move every piece once before you move any piece twice, unless there is a tactic." But strong players wishing to improve need to learn more specific sequences and what happens when the opponent plays incorrectly. So if you are 2300 and playing the Gruenfeld and want to do it better so you can become 2500, it makes a lot of sense to hire a grandmaster who specializes in the Gruenfeld to teach you. But it makes no sense for a 1300 who wants to become 1500 to hire that same GM to teach him those same Gruenfeld lines (not that the GM couldn't help the 1300 immensely with his openings and other matters, especially safety). Similarly, in the endgame an inexperienced player first of all needs to learn how to analyze slowly and carefully, be able to mate with a Q&K vs. K and R&K vs. K, etc. Leave the Lucena positions to those rated 1800 or above; even if they occasionally occur in your game it won't make a big difference in your playing strength if you throw away a half point; that will be minor compared to the many points you will throw away if you don't learn to play each endgame slowly and carefully.
Bard: So if an instructor can only help the 1300 so much via general and specific knowledge on openings and endgames, where's the beef?
Dan: Again, don't get me wrong. Openings and endgames are very important, but the detailed knowledge of many specific positions should not be the focus of inexperienced players looking to dramatically improve. Instead Analysis and Evaluation are the key skills they should look to improve (see http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman12.pdf). The reason why there are so many 10 and 11 year old 1900 players who can beat 40-year-old 1600 players who have read 100+ chess books and know openings and endgames so much better is that chess is not just a game of knowledge. If that were true, than whoever read the most chess books and understood them would be the top players in the World. But chess is a game of knowledge AND skill. Since analysis is the single most important skill determining your chess strength, 11 year olds who analyze well will consistenly beat 1600 adults who can't do it quite as well. The youngsters easily overcome the knowledge gap not because it is useless, but because it isn't the primary factor in playing strength. The second most important skill, evaluation, is the ability to determine "Which side is better, how much better, and why" given a specific position.
Bard: So you claim an instructor can help a player analyze and evaluate better?
Dan: Absolutely. Although it all begins with two factors: a student's willingness to play consistently slowly and look for better moves in long time control games (that's what analysis requires) and a strong fundamental grounding in basic tactics, since safety (finding tactics your opponent allows you and, more importantly, restricting the tactics you allow your opponent) is the most important component of analysis.
Bard: And how does an instructor best do that?
Dan: Ah, ... well maybe I should sign you up for a lesson...