Pandolfini's Mailbag: Back In The Game

Pandolfini's Mailbag: Back In The Game

| 25 | Strategy

Topic for next month: Chess Teaching

(Please start submitting questions concerning the above topic for the next column. Questions outside of that theme should be submitted to other departments. If I get a chance to tackle a different type of question, I may do so in the comments section at the bottom of the page. Let's see how it goes. -- Bruce P)

Question 1 (submitted by cdowis75):

I had not played for many years, so I came here to get back into chess.  I am very worried about messing up, especially the opening, so I have been only doing online chess.  I now want to do live chess (30 or 45 min) so that I can start playing over the board,  but not sure how to transition over.  I did one online game, and they did some weird gambit and I got blown away.  I gave up after that.

I do reasonably well in middle and endgame, but any suggestions to get me into live chess?  Basically, I am unrated in live chess, and 1840 in online. Thanks for your ideas.

Answer 1:

I’m not exactly clear on what the problem may be. Do you really need special preparation to play either way, whether it’s online or over the board? Hey, go ahead. Just play.  Either way. What are you worried about? Losing rating points? I’m not saying you’re overly focused on rating. But if that’s what you’re concerned with, I think you’re placing emphasis on the wrong thing. 

Now you say you got blown away by a weird gambit. Most of us have certainly had that experience, so I understand how one can be chagrined by that. But let me ask you this. After getting so pulverized, did you try to find out more about the gambit? Did you look it up in chess literature or on the Internet? Did you explore other means to learn about it, such as asking strong players what they thought of it? 

If you’re a student of the game, and you sound like one, you should be using all your chess games, whether online or over the board, fast or slow, to generate ideas for further investigation. To be sure, those ideas can then be pursued and analyzed afterward. Ultimately, by trying to study them, you'll not only learn more about them. You may assimilate so much, and find them so attractive,  that you feel emboldened to utilize those ideas in your own contests, with favorable results. It should be evident that a valuable method to learn is implied here: to play challenging opposition regularly and then to examine worthwhile positions emanating from those actual skirmishes.  


However you feel, don’t let the possibility of losing games dissuade you from playing. Everybody on the planet loses from time to time. The most successful, such as Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, manage to learn from their defeats so they can win in the future. And they do win, an awful lot. In our own cases, we should be ecstatic when confronted by new and startling chess concepts that topple us from our secure perches. That’s the type of wake-up call we all can use. Intellectually, it reminds us that study has no fixed end. It just goes on and on, especially if we love what we're doing. 

It's time to add a little method to the madness. If you don’t feel any of the following quite applies, please accept my apology. Nevertheless, I’m going off in this direction anyway. Let's say it's for didactic purposes.

There are myriad ways to study chess. There are also many approaches to improving, even within the confines of your online rating group.

Here's a list of steps you might possibly try. I'm numbering the items for easy reference. (Actually, to help me recall what I've just written.) 

  1. Play stimulating opposition on a consistent basis (whether online or over the board). 
  2. Analyze those games in great detail (with the help of others or software, especially if you think you need help). 
  3. Ascertain, as best you can (with or without help), where and when you seem to be experiencing the greatest troubles during play. 
  4. Seek out books, online sites, and software providing information directly relating to those perceived problems.  
  5. Study that material even more so, as Sherlock Holmes or Professor Moriarty would, sifting for clues and surprising patterns, particularly those that could be put to good use. 
  6. Play some more, attempting to go right into the teeth of those apparently paradigmatic snags and hitches, as if Botvinnik were standing over your shoulder and you had to prove to him that you were following his advice. (If you can't do this for yourself, do it for Botvinnik.)
  7. Repeat the process endlessly (again, the pursuit of improvement should never stop) -– analyzing, determining weaknesses, finding curative examples and other relevant stuff that correlates to marginalizing and possibly eliminating those difficulties and nuisances. 

Doing better than all that is hard to do. Well, maybe you could resort to magic. Know any genies?


Good luck, my friend, and let’s hope the servant of the lamp takes a liking to you.

Question 2 (submitted by SJFG):

Do you have any tips for how to play well consistently? It seems that everyone has a "range" of skill that they play in, sometimes playing at the top of their potential (i.e., in form), sometimes playing at their worst (out of form).  Even top players seem to regularly bounce in and out of form, and it seems to have huge effects.  Does that mean there's no way to avoid seemingly random ups and downs, or are there ways to consistently play near your maximum potential?

Answer 2:

So much of our universe is cyclic, entangled in recurring process, as expressed in profound hypotheses, from Heraclitus to Eliade to Bergson to various modern-day theories of cosmology. Surely there’s room for comparable periodicity in chess. Of course, it’s natural for chess players to have ups and downs, good and bad days, just like everyone else in practically every endeavor.

There are days we’re on, there are days we’re off, not to mention all the other detractions that can take away from optimal play, such as illness, lack of sleep, headaches, and other depressing manifestations and occurrences. These burdens and tribulations can markedly weigh us down and downgrade performance, just as buoyant and positive happenings away from the chessboard can favorably affect play on it. 

How can we attempt to minimize and shorten those dispiriting stretches? Truly, there are no automatic answers here. But if anything could help, I think it is contingent upon having a strong routine buttressing our preparation and our actual play. By grounding ourselves in step-by-step procedures while drilling and practicing, we prop ourselves to get through the worst of actual chess games. Clearly, our play is bolstered by foundation and structure. 

What should we do in particular? We can start with certain mental checks. When we sit down to play a chess game, are we honed and  ready for it? Indubitably, if we don’t feel psyched to play, we’re not going to play our best, plain and simple. But if we instill the right mindset from the beginning, we're better able to cope with the game in front of us, while blotting out the world around us. If we're going to optimize performance, we have to keep our focus and attention.  

Now the game starts. We shouldn't rush those early moves, even when we think we know them well. While we don’t want to waste time early during a game (or at any point during a contest, for that matter), we should play the first few moves a bit less casually than most of us do. Indeed, many of us don’t start thinking until around move 10 or so. (Maybe there should be a new form of chess, where we set up various positions at move 10 and play from there.)

If we do not remain attentive to these initial moves, not surprisingly, regardless of our ostensible familiarity with them, we may suddenly wake up to realize we’ve been caught in an unfavorable line or a setup we dislike. Our play in the rest of the game is likely to go further downhill from that point. In short, we don't want to be there. 

One could write volumes on this. My fingers, however, tell me I’m not going write very much more at this time. But let me add this to the mix. Proper training can do something more: it can suggest what general questions to self-pose so that the thinking juices can start flowing when everything seems at a standstill. 

For example, with reference to planning, we can begin the exploration with Capablanca’s question. When unsure how to proceed in certain kinds of unclear positions, Capablanca would ask: What would I like to do if I could?

That seems to be a ridiculously generalized and unhelpful query. Nevertheless, as shapeless as it is, it is amazing how often that type of prompting can trigger pertinent thoughts.  Even if they’re at the unconscious level, they’re bound to work their way to the surface, helping to direct us to the right square or line.  That doesn't mean the process is going to hand us the best move. But the chances of finding a relevant thought increase dramatically when starting with such a helpful signpost.  


There’s so much to say here, it’s hard to say what to say next. What’s more, as I've just more or less said, the problem can hardly be cleared up from this present offering. Nonetheless, to prepare for competitive chess, it can't hurt to adopt the following approach. That is,  we should follow the maxim: PRACTICE FOR REAL

Now in trying to establish a particular consistency, we of course must safeguard ourselves from being too mechanical. But following methodical procedures and ways of doing things doesn’t mean that one has to stop thinking altogether. These general formulations are just checks on what’s going on. They do not confer absolute knowledge and cannot be trusted categorically. True, many generalizations are mere platitudes, but platitudes are based on truths. Saying it another way, principles can be helpful in sparking the thinking process, but they can never substitute for it. 

Look, there are no ways to avoid the kinds of highs and lows most of us are likely to encounter. Nevertheless, by practicing for real, by establishing habits that can service us when not feeling our best, we can go a long way toward reducing the length and severity of miserable play. I hope that helps. I wish I could give a better answer. I also wish I had the serenity of an alpine setting in an eternal summer. 


Question 3 (submitted by j2009m):

Your first example of a good question/topic that could benefit more users actually gave me an idea for a question.

Your example: "I'm 1600 and I've struggled finding the right balance between improving my openings vs. doing Tactics Trainer and studying endgames. What would you recommend as a good study plan?" 

Gave me the idea for this: All those aspects of the game are important to me; however, how can players decide which of those applies to their own play? Should we focus on improving our weakest points or study chess in a particular order? How do we identify our weak points?

I feel that in learning, the best way to recall information for later use is to review all the information related to the topic, not just the things we struggle to remember. In other words, our brains are similar to a muscle when it comes to recalling information. If we want to recall this information easily, we need to practice recalling it. This helps us recall more of the information later because we have more associations that can help us queue it from memory. 

I’m no chess expert but it seems to me that chess is broken down into many different categories/subjects. Therefore I think each category/subject should be studied as a whole.

This brings me back to my original questions: How can players decide which of those applies to their own play? Should we focus on improving our weakest category/subject or study chess in a particular order? How do we identify our weak category/subject?


Answer 3

I appreciate your excellent analysis. You touch upon a number of worthy subjects. I’m afraid I won’t be able to do them all justice this month. But I will try to answer your question, which, for the purposes of today’s column, I am going to rephrase slightly (forgive me if I’ve misunderstood your intent):  As students, should we study definite subject matters, perhaps in particular order, or should we concentrate on material directly bearing on our needs and problems?  

Obviously, as I’ve said earlier, and at other places in my writing, there is no one right way to study chess. Anybody who says otherwise doesn’t know what he or she is talking about, or is operating tendentiously, with ulterior purposes in mind (such as to promote his or her own course of study). 

If Aristotle were alive, and if he played chess (What am I saying, of course he’d play chess!), he’d probably recommend a balanced approach. That is, it would be good to study some standard things, but also many motifs relating to our individual problems. 

How can we start to address our particular needs? A good place to start is by submitting our games to thorough analysis, where every move we make is questioned and reviewed. That’s where a perceptive teacher can be a godsend. (Software evaluations can also be helpful, but they are not quite able to frame the right questions –- well, not yet.)

Anyhow, over time, as we hear the same kinds of questions being formulated and raised, we naturally start asking similar types of internalized questions ourselves. And as the teacher’s questioning becomes more sophisticated with our improvement as players, our own questioning process concomitantly becomes more sophisticated, reflecting those gains.

So that’s what I think will help the student most: having his or her own play regularly critiqued by observant and knowledgeable chess professionals. But chess is so much fun, and there are chess positions and ideas so exhilarating, everyone should have contact with them. Many of those are cardinal to the game of chess, and the game of chess is very much ingrained in world culture.  Hey, that’s what they tell me. 

This upcoming month:

Once again, I will try to address generalized questions, with the subject matter being in this case “chess teaching.”  

Have a great month, as short as it is.

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