Coach's Corner: Can Kabadayi

Coach's Corner: Can Kabadayi

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During the Chess Punks Tournament, we interviewed the 8 coaches who helped prepare the finalists of the tournament in a series called Coach’s Corner.

The tournament is now over, but Coach’s Corner is here to stay with top coaches’ and authors' tips on how to improve your chess.

Today, we're interviewing cognitive scientist, Candidate Master, FIDE instructor, and winner of Chessable Community Author of the Year 2022 Can Kabadayi.

Kabadayi got his start on Chessable as a community author, and he has been a breakout success. His courses have become so popular with users that they've been turned into video courses - his latest, Fundamental Chess Calculation Skills becoming an instant hit.

His experience as both a cognitive scientist and chess coach make for a powerful combination in his chess instruction! Here's Can's view on things:

What is your chess coaching philosophy?

Since I started chess at a late age and improved through pure passion for the game - by reading tons of books and studying master games – my coaching philosophy mainly revolves around spreading my passion for chess to my students and supporting them in their chess journey, by motivating them to engage in deeper processing of information by asking “why?” questions. 

I believe the most important role of the chess coach is to give epistemic feedback to the student: It means answering the “why?” questions. Because the student can find the answers to the “what?” questions by asking Stockfish. But Stockfish does not currently answer why that particular move was good or why the student’s move was bad. And if you do not engage with the “why?” question, then learning becomes shallow and you will soon forget it.

Obviously answering the “why?” questions connects nicely to strategy as it is mostly about conceptual understanding. This is the reason why I created so many Chessable courses on strategy. But it also applies to strategic endgames and I would say even to chess tactics – as every tactical pattern still connects to some logical connection, e.g. this tactic works because the enemy piece is overworked – they cannot fulfill two functions at the same time. And obviously, this also applies to the opening study as explaining the reasoning behind the opening moves is crucial for long-lasting retention. Instead, if you merely rely on rote memorization, you will soon forget about those moves. 

So I encourage my students to keep asking the “why?” questions, while analyzing their own games but also during my classes. I encourage them to bring those questions to the class where we discuss them together. 

Suppose a player has only 3 hours a week for chess training. How should they spend their time?

It depends on the level of the student (see the next answer). But if I have to give a generic answer, it would be 1 hour of tactical training (involving tactical pattern recognition like puzzle rush + calculation + blunder check + seeing the threat training) + 1 hour of play & analysis of the game + 1 hour of strategy + endgame + guess-the-move training (You pick a model player and you go through their instructive games, ideally from your own opening, and you actively try to guess their move played in the actual game. This is a great tool for upper-intermediate players and masters, but it serves well for weaker players with the help of a coach).

What is the biggest factor for improvement for players under 1200 ( Under 2000?

Most games at that level are decided by crude blunders and tactical mistakes, while endgames are very uncommon. I observed these patterns while working on a YouTube project on climbing the rating levels. For example, how to reach 1200 ELO.

So, tactical training becomes very important for this range, but again, by tactical training, I do not only mean puzzle rush pattern recognition tactics but also training to see the threats behind the opponent’s last move and blunder check training (Until 1000 ELO people keep hanging their pieces by placing them on a square that the enemy can just capture them). Very basic endgame patterns should be studied from around 1000 ELO, such as the opposition, rule of the square, etc. Opening memorization is not needed, golden rules should be followed and they should learn not to go for cheap tricks in the opening. Very basic strategic patterns should be studied too, such as not playing carelessly with the pawns and giving an amazing outpost to the enemy pieces.

I would focus on looking at instructive master games with good annotations, particularly from their own opening. This will already give good epistemic feedback as the master/author is explaining the reasons behind those moves. Looking at whole games is also good for fighting against isolation and fragmentation: they will start seeing connections between the opening, middlegame, and endgame. Carefully listening to the thoughts of a strong player/coach will also be very helpful for beginners to learn from a model and shape their mental models/notice their mistaken patterns. Also recommended is to study books/courses on instructive mistakes by their peers (This was the main reason why I wrote Chess Crime and Punishment on Chessable).

Under 2000 ELO: Probably calculation and depth of middlegame understanding. I am still working on a climb-the-rating-ladder project, and I will have better insights for that range once I finish that project. My 3-ply calculation course on Chessable is generally suited for people between 1400-2000 I would say. And when I say calculation, I mean both forced and unforced calculations. We all know what forced calculation is, but unforced calculation involves setting your goal properly and gaining positional advantages instead of tactical ones. For example, you engage in short calculation to generate a passed pawn. This is an unforced calculation with great practical significance, as most of our decisions in upper-intermediate level games are such ‘quiet’ or ‘simple’ decisions. 

Can Kabadayi YouTube
Can Kabadayi on his YouTube channel, Dr. Can's Clinic

What is your preferred way to improve at tactics and strategy?

As mentioned above, to me tactics involve pattern recognition (puzzle rush, etc. that builds the tactical vision) + calculation + internalizing the algorithm of always checking for the threats behind the opponent’s move + blunder check your move before you play it. The latter two aspects are often neglected, but they explain most of the losses for beginners/casual players. If you miss a winning tactic for yourself, the game goes on and you will have other chances later, but if you miss the threat behind the opponent’s last move you usually lose instantly – there is no turning back. Similarly for the blunder check: if you are careless even for a single move, you can lose ANY chess position. These two things are also difficult because we must ACTIVELY search for the best move for the opponent. Several cognitive biases kick in here, e.g., confirmation bias, that makes it difficult to do.

Strategy connects to conceptual understanding (see above). So the ‘why’ question becomes crucial for deeper processing and long-term retention. Good books or courses (check my Chessable courses!) with tons of text and explanations, analogies, comparisons, etc. are great ways to improve at strategy. Annotated master games are also good here.

What is your preferred way to improve your openings? And, what's your approach to chess openings that you try to teach students?

My personal approach to openings was to pick a model player and model his openings by doing a ‘guess-the-move training’. I did this gazillions of times, e.g. Kramnik’s games in the Catalan opening. This way you are learning actively, by putting yourself in Kramnik’s shoes and pretending that you are crushing Garry Kasparov. This also gives self-confidence. You do it for several games, then you start seeing common plans and ideas in that opening. The beautiful part here is also that the knowledge does not remain isolated – you look at FULL games, thus you connect opening to middlegame and endgame. This deeper processing leads to long-lasting retention. If you are a weak player, I advise you to do this with a coach where he/she can support you and give epistemic feedback on your moves. You can also do it using an annotated book. You first guess the moves and later read the annotations, to see how you differed from master’s thinking. As a third layer of feedback, you can check things with an engine. It is beautiful and yet so under-utilized! 

But obviously, several Chessable courses offer you such connections between openings and middlegames, by giving typical ideas such as pawn breaks, exchanges, favorable endgames etc. And from a purely scientific point of view, it makes sense for beginners to avoid very sharp and theoretical openings but choose simple systems such as – and I hate to say this personally – the London system. This is totally about assimilating the recurring patterns and getting several of those patterns with that particular pawn structure. With Black you then go for the Slav complex. Or King's Indian Attack/Defense with both colors. One of my students regained motivation for chess after switching to the classical Dutch with Black and the Bird Opening with White. He started understanding those recurrent middlegame patterns. So probably aiming a fixed pawn structure is helpful here, such as the Caro-Kann exchange with Bd3 – obtaining the Carlsbad structure and deeply studying that particular structure.

What is your preferred way to improve at the endgame?

Some very basic theoretical endgames should be known, but casual players should avoid memorizing 100 endgames. Strategic endgames should be studied and can even be played out against a training partner or an engine. More focus should be given to rook endgames as they have the highest chance of occurrence in actual games. Active play with the rook should be learned and practiced in training games.

I personally played hundreds of “pawns only” chess variants while I was improving at chess. You only have kings and 8 pawns for both sides, and you play it out. That taught me several important pawn-ending patterns. And Capablanca is right to a certain extent that endgames should be studied first as then you can make good decisions in the middlegame to get your favorable endgame. 

The Art of Exchanging Pieces course contains several such connections with endgame transitions. For example, an outside passed pawn is a great pawn endgame advantage. The student should be encouraged to understand the reason and this will lead to knowledge that will never disappear, and they can use this knowledge to make great exchange decisions to reach a winning ending. 

In my recent YouTube series Endgame Maze, I play out winning endgame positions against bots, while laying down my thoughts to people so they can model me as an example. Obviously, there are also extremely sharp endgames involving precise calculation, and endgame studies can be helpful there – but the positions should not be very detached from real-world settings in those studies so that those patterns have a higher chance to be applied in actual game situations.

Can's Courses

If you're a fan of Can's approach to improvement, then check out his Chessable courses.

You can geta feeling of what his instruction style is like on Chessable with the following free lesson:

The Art of Series: Free Lesson