Q&A with Coach Heisman Aug 31, 2012

  • NM danheisman
  • | Aug 31, 2012

In today's show there were many open-ended questions similar to "Hi! I'm 1600 and want to get to 1800. What books should I read?" or the more answerable "Hi! I'm 1600 and I want a good book on positional play. What do you recommend?"

There's a ton to be learned from chess books - I would be a hypocrite to say otherwise, since I own about 1,000 and have written 11 myself! But this "lock myself in the closet and read til I get better" quest doesn't bear as much fruit as you improve. Open-ended questions that ask for help without a fairly complete knowledge of the asker are difficult to answer, e.g. a 1400 who plays way to slowly usually requires completely different advice than a 1400 who plays way too quickly. A good positional book for a tactically competent 9 year old rated 1300 might not be appropriate for a tactically deficient but knowledgeable 50 year old with that same 1300 rating.

If you are rated 900-1500 and are in desperate need of tactics, then a book like John Bain's Chess Tactics for Students is excellent to use as a type of multiplication table - repetitive study of the most common patterns (non-book tools such as Chess.com's Tactics Trainer or Chess Mentor should be mentioned). Or if you need a start in game books or strategy, pick up Chernev's Logical Chess Move by Move or Coakley Winning Chess Strategy for Kids (it's excellent, not just for kids!), respectively. Again, my money is where my mouth is, as I recommend, at least in part, that any aspiring player use these books in articles such as The Four Homeworks (http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman68.pdf).

One common answer that covered many of those questions was to reference my Recommended Book page - http://danheisman.home.comcast.net/~danheisman/Events_Books/General_Book_Guide.htm). I often tried to give a brief answer (if it were possible; on some open questions it was difficult) but, if a much more comprehensive answer existed in one of my earlier columns or articles - or anywhere else - I made the reference.

I think almost every strong player has a large "non-book" component in their learning experience (see Every Good Chess Player http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman49.pdf). We could extend the idea of "book" in this context to include similar modern technology like videos or even software, too. All these tools are great, and even necessary, but it doesn't make them sufficient.

I think I speak from experience. I have taught almost 1,000 different students in one-on-one lessons and many start with the "books safe; humans dangerous" fear. They do want to lock themselves in a closet; I occasionally hear "I don't want to play in tournaments until I am good!" Or they exhibit a fear of live opponents in clubs and tournaments; some of these opponents are rude, play too fast, won't talk to them after the game, hang out with only their friends instead or... You get the idea - I address this type of problem in Breaking Down Barriers (http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman69.pdf).

In the long run if you have aspects for serious improvement - especially for titles like "expert" or "master" - the only places that grant these titles are serious, long time control, OTB events. And these live events also happen to be the single best source of chess experience; as one IM called it, "immersing yourself in the chess culture."

The "book" questions are legitimate and very heartfelt. Many don't have access to clubs and tournaments because they live in remote locations. For those without access, and even those that do, servers like chess.com are a modern blessing, providing live human opposition 24/7.

Another aspect to the "book" problem is that the searchers are hoping someone can suggest something akin to "Yes, if you read My System like I did when I was 1800, you too will understand positional play and improve greatly!" It's true a good book at the right time can help greatly (see Chess Books and Prerequisites at http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman06.pdf) but it's easy to go overboard in that direction. 

Some of the "non-book" actions I advise include "Play lots of long-time control games slowly. Try to take almost all your time in the game. After the game ask your opponent if they would like to review the game with you. If you can, find a strong player and ask if they would be kind enough to review the game with you. If possible, try to play opponents who average slightly higher than you so that get pushed and learn things. Always try your best every move; if you don't feel like thinking that long, play a shorter time control game." If you want more, check out "My Top Tips for Improvement" at http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman133.pdf.

Many of the things these "book-seeking" players need the most are either not found in books or, if they are, they are either in basic books, or a note in a general improvement book that they never saw or never realized was key to their further progress. The abundance of good chess books can definitely help, but ignoring the other dimensions to improvement are going to result in diminishing returns.

One book that did get mentioned in an answer was the recently controversial Move First, Think Later by Willy Hendriks. I first addressed this book in my chess.com blog There is no Single Correct Thought Process (http://blog.chess.com/danheisman/there-is-no-one-correct-thought-process). Hendriks theme addresses his perceived fallacies of "expert" help (whether packaged in book form or not, although he seems to specialize in picking on Silman's books). I think his skepticism is healthy and much of his specific advice is good, although his occasional "the world is crazy but I am sane" approach is probably not the best for winning friends and influencing people.

One theme of the show was acquiring positional knowledge but, since there were few "position specific" questions today, I would like to show the final half of one of my very few positional wins (I think I have about two in my lifeSmile). It illustrates the power of a mobile majority vs. a non-mobile one. In this game I recognize the opportunity to create a queenside majority and that turns out to be the big difference:

Hope you will tune in next time!


  • 4 years ago


    Hi Dan,

    I'm going off to college soon and I don't know what the chess population is like there. I have been unable to find any tournaments in the area. So my prospects look dim. Tournaments are very important to me psychologically. I use them as sign posts on my road to improvement. Lol that was cheesey, but it is exactly true. I have signs like "Warning Tournament in Two Weeks. start working hard now or else"  And it has worked suprisingly well. I just jumped from 1300 to 1500 by binge reading Silman for the entire week before a tournament. My binging is the result of one part Love of Chess, one part I Don't Want to Make a Fool of Myself and a whole TUN of I Want To Beat the Living Tar Out of Someone in a Serious Game. To me tournament games are Life and Death. 

    The problem is: I'm afraid that at college I wont be able to whip up the same enthusiasm that i have had in the past. There wont be anything important to be prepared for. I've searched the internet for tournaments, but they are all too far away. Do you have any suggestions/ideas for whipping up my enthusiasm without tournaments? Any and all ideas are appreciated :)  

    ps. Thx for answering my question in your video. I am now walking two miles a day to improve my endurance.

  • 4 years ago

    NM danheisman

    Yoniker: I think the deliberate study thing is correct, but doesn't contradict anything I wrote. It's apples and oranges, IMHO. I just implied that only using books is not the best approach, not that chess books are not helpful. Deliberate study is a type of studying - it is not a philosophy that implies only using chess books is the best way to get better. You can use chess books as part of your deliberate study (which, so far as I understand, does not imply you should never play!), or you can use chess books in a way that is not deliberate study at all (which the deliberate study people imply is often the case, although they are not just writing about chess). This is probably a much better phone conversation than back-and-forth online commenting, so if you wish to call me, my phone and skype numbers are listed at my website. I certainly don't want to position myself as a deliberate study expert, which I am not.

  • 4 years ago


    Had to miss the show due to travel, but a GREAT article!

  • 4 years ago


    Dan,thanks for your usual informative article.

    However i have to disagree on one point:

    "But this "lock myself in the closet and read til I get better" quest doesn't bear as much fruit as you improve".

    There is an academic study which clearly proves: Deliberate study is more important than playing! You can find it here:


    I have been in the 2000-2100 range for too long(three years). I play (or rather played up to one month ago) in the club every week for one year,crushing 1900 and below,and never winning even a single game against masters.

    I really want to be able to challange the few NMs in my club,and become one of the best players in the club. So I plan to study 3 hours or more per day (2 hours before work and one hour after) and return after about 1000 accumulated hours of study. I am studying the 9 books by Yusupov (which in fact instruct you to study actively which i do anyway) as well as solitare chess (taking a game from,say,Alekhine's best game,playing in Alekhine side and trying to guess every move,as if it was an important OTB game) and other forms of active study (solving EG positions and studies,regular tactics practice).


    I really think that this will help me overcome the plateau i am experiencing.

    So,if you know better (specifically note that i do not hang pieces anymore as i am a ~2050 player already. I just reached the most annoying plateau that i intend to break) and you knew a lot of players of my level who tried this kind of thing and failed,please stop me in time :) (i.e. before i will waste one year).

  • 4 years ago


    I started playing OTB tournament chess earlier this year and can vouch for the validity of Dan's comments. For me the club and tournament experience with slow (40/2hr, SD1hr) time controls has helped me more than reading books and article on my own. An additional cool aspect if you are a competitive person is battling with a human opponend a few feet away from you!

  • 4 years ago


    oh msiipola i admire your love for chess.as for im weak in defense as i am an aggressive player.my positional play is very weak. i love tactics but definitely weak on defense

  • 4 years ago


    I'm one of those older players with knowledge, but weak tactics. I have been a D/C-class player for years. I have read lot of books, done lot of puzzles but my improvement is very slow if any.

    I also have this change-openings illness, and spending too much time for searching for the perfect-beginner-opening. I played the Colle before, but changed to 1.e4 in order to improve my tactics. But now I often loose in less then 20 moves, or loose on time because I can't find good moves in complex tactical positions. So now I'm again looking at playing non-tactical-safe openings like KIA.

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