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Coach's Corner: Vjekoslav Nemec

Coach's Corner: Vjekoslav Nemec

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After a long break, Coach’s Corner is back! But what we lost in time we’ll make up for in spades with the insights from this edition’s coach. 

Candidate Master Vjekoslav Nemec is a 4-time Chessable author, former Chessable publishing manager, and the man behind the popular Chessentials chess improvement blog. 

He’s also the co-author of the new Chessable course Gustafsson’s Aggressive 1.e4, where his detailed, club-player friendly analysis arms the student with a world-class opening repertoire that pulls no punches. 

Known for his thoroughness, candor, and incisive writing, CM Nemec’s answers to our questionnaire don’t disappoint. So grab yourself a cup of coffee and hear what this talented chess coach had to say. After all, if GM Jan Gustafsson teams up with him, he must be good!

1. What's your coaching philosophy?

A good and a tough question. In the past, I wrote a long article for my blog talking about my views on chess coaching in great detail. I will summarize some of its points here.

To begin with, I wouldn't say I have an overarching coaching philosophy, mainly because I do believe there is no “one-size-fits-them-all” kind of solution - especially when we are talking about adult players who want to improve without necessarily wanting to become World Champions. I always try to tailor an individual approach for every student and find the right balance between working on things I think they should be working on and working on things that they want to be working on. 

With that being said, I do think there are certain things a good chess coach should do and have certain principles/rules I try to adhere to with every student. To name a few:

A) If you are not having fun, you are doing it wrong

First and most importantly - I think trying to make the lessons - and also the entire process of working at chess - as fun as possible, is paramount to keeping the student motivated. After all,  isn’t that the point of a “hobby” to begin with? 

It pains me when I see some coaches and personalities express their strong anti-fun sentiments and preach against things such as “playing blitz”, as if we are suddenly back to Botvinnik times. The way I see it, any time spent on chess is better than the time not spent on chess - even if it is not the most “productive”.

Of course, that is not to say that I endorse playing blitz all the time. I do expect my students to do some “constructive work” and do some serious study that is so necessary to improve. I try to motivate them to find a way to do it regularly and tailor a plan of study that will help them to do so. 

But it is a matter of balance. I always recommend my students to combine self-accountability with self-compassion.

B) If I am not having fun, I am doing it wrong

As I elaborated in my blog post mentioned above, I think it is of paramount importance that a chess coach is motivated and enthusiastic about their job. Which is why it is important for the coach to “know themselves” and be aware of their preferences, their strengths and their weaknesses. For example - over the last few years, I realized I don’t particularly enjoy working with absolute beginners and that I lack certain pedagogical skills to work with extremely young children. So whenever I get an inquiry from a student from that category, I try to refer them to someone else.

I also think life is worthless living without having fun and laughing, so I try my best to infuse my lessons with humour, jokes, and keep the atmosphere light. This might be a deal-breaker for potential students, but I would rather work with less students and be enthusiastic about it. After all, only when you are enthusiastic about something are you able to give it your very best.

C) If you are not doing the work outside of the lessons, you are doing it wrong

In my view, without having the time (or will) to do the work outside of the lessons, paying for lessons is throwing the money in the wind. This is why I always try to motivate my students to do so, hold them accountable by giving them assignments in-between lessons and in extreme cases - advise them to delay/stop with the lessons until they have more time to devote to chess outside of them.

D) If you are not playing, you are doing it wrong

There is a famous anecdote/story related to the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match, according to which Fischer threatened not to play in the match unless the prize fund was increased. Upon hearing this, British businessman Jim Slater donated $125,000 to the prize fund and then sent a message to Fischer stating:”Now, come out and play, chicken”. 

I often remember this anecdote in my coaching practice, since it is common to encounter students who keep delaying playing OTB chess and prefer to keep studying until they are “fully ready” for a chess tournament. 

Since I consider playing as the most important aspect of improving, I always try to encourage them to go to a tournament sooner rather than later. Since no matter how much preparation one puts into it, one will never feel fully prepared for the tournament.

Coach's Corner Vjekoslav Nemec
Vjeko winning the local rapid event in Zagreb

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

I was never a big fan of these “I have XYZ hours per week, what is the best way to use them” kinds of questions, because I have they are often asked by people who are trying to “shortcut” their ways to some ambitious goals and are not prepared to put in the -“sweat work” toward achieving them. 

After all, chess improvement - just like improvement in any other field - is to an extent a numbers game. I think it is illusory to expect any major leaps without putting in an allotted amount of hours. 

I think with only 3 hours per week, it is not very reasonable to expect any major gains - although it does depend on your level (since chess improvement is non-linear e.g., it is easier for a 1000-rated player to improve than for a 2000-rated player).

With that being said, if you have a limited amount of time at your disposal, I would recommend trying to stick to the basics and incorporate a healthy mix of studying and playing. With 3 hours per week, I would probably suggest trying to solve a few puzzles (15-20 min) every week and playing at least one longer game (15+10 or longer) per week. 

3. What is the biggest factor for improvement for players under 1200 (Chess.com)? Under 2000?

I think the biggest factor for improvement for any player, irrespective of their rating, is their passion and love for the game. 

If you are not naturally drawn to the game, if you don’t find beauty in it, if you constantly need additional “stimulus” to look at chess/play chess daily, if you are purely doing it for external reasons such as rating, if trying to do any kind of serious work ALWAYS feels like a chore, then sustained and consistent improvement will be very difficult.

Sure, one can “hack it” for a certain period and force themselves to do stuff through sheer discipline and perseverance. But in my experience, without the intrinsic motivation and the appreciation of the game, it is very hard to sustain this over a long period. Forcing yourself to do things you don’t enjoy is a good way to burn yourself to the ground.

It is not a coincidence that virtually all the strong chess players I have ever met are huge chess fans and enthusiasts. If passion is there, everything else will be much easier.

Coach's Corner Vjekoslav Nemec 2
Vjeko in action in the 2nd Croatian league

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

In my mind, tactics are the most straightforward area to improve at, because the way of doing it is “obvious” - solve tactical puzzles. There is a lot of debate these days about what the best resource for puzzles is. One could make an argument that digital sources can foster some bad habits, such as making a move on “instinct”, without considering all of the opponent’s resources (which is why I recommend my students to try to do all of their tactical training with a pen and paper. As Jacob Aagard once put it “if a move is not in the solution, you haven’t seen it”). 

Although I do I think any source that makes you solve puzzles and train your “tactical brain” is beneficial to a certain extent. In my experience, the harder part is to keep consistency and solve puzzles regularly. And this consistency is what guarantees good results in the long run.

As for strategy (and most other areas), it is not that “obvious” what the best way of improving in that area is, since there are “many ways that lead to Rome”. I think a good way of improving involves a healthy mix between trying to acquire knowledge and practicing the skills/applying that knowledge:

A) Acquiring knowledge: reading strategy books and studying master-level games While the former is straightforward, there are many ways of doing the latter (e.g., Solitaire Chess, as advocated by the founders of The Chess Gym FM Nate Solon and Martin Justensen, among others). You can also study annotated master-level games, or try to annotate them yourself. The main point here is to learn about strategic patterns and expose yourself to different ideas.

B) Applying knowledge: Without playing a lot of games and analyzing them, it is hard to improve in any aspect of the game. If one could choose only one thing to do, playing the games and then quickly checking them would be my recommended method. (I think this is one of the reasons why some young players improve very quickly - they go from one tournament to another and simply play a lot. Without trying to follow some ideal chess training routine for 2 years beforehand).

5. What is your preferred way to improve at openings? What's the approach to chess openings that you try to teach your students?

I am a big advocate of an understanding-based approach to studying chess openings. 

In the modern day of chess databases and long-engine lines, there are a lot of dangers related to the opening study. It is very easy to memorize an opening line without necessarily understanding the nuances and the points behind specific moves, without knowing what one should do after the opening stage is done, and judging whether the resulting position at the end of the line is playable in the practical game, despite the verdict of the chess engine.

What should one do to avoid falling into these “traps”? How should one go about fostering an understanding-based approach to the opening study? I recommend the following:

A) Keeping an open mind, asking a lot of questions at every turn and trying to understand every opening move in a line. 

A basic example would involve the line of the Ruy Lopez that starts with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 - if you can’t explain to yourself why Black doesn’t lose a pawn after 4.Bxc6 dxc6 5.Nxe5, you will not understand the reasoning behind the more common move 4.Ba4 very well. 

B) Being aware of the pawn structures that can arise from your opening and knowing typical ideas, themes, and plans in these structures

I think this is an extremely important, yet severely underrated aspect of the opening study. Knowing which pawn structure you reach out of the opening has multiple benefits. First of all, it can help you when it comes to tailoring your opening repertoire. You can take a “Pawn-Structure Based” approach and decide to play openings that commonly lead to similar structures. With both colors. 

Most notable examples include playing the Caro-Kann against 1.e4 and Slav against 1.d4, both of which commonly lead to the typical structure with the White pawn on d4 facing the pawns on e6 and c6 (after the exchange of the e and c-pawns) or trying to get the Carlsbad structure against everything, say by going for the Queen’s Gambit Declined as Black and then playing Exchange Variation with exd5 against the Caro-Kann. Or the London system. 

But more importantly, studying typical pawn structures can help you handle the middlegames that result from your opening much more competently and makes you, overall, a better player. This is why I included “Typical Pawn Structures” chapters in some of my previous courses. Although such chapters within an opening course are usually only “the tip of the iceberg”. 

For a more comprehensive study, I do recommend getting a book devoted specifically to this topic. The best one is probably Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide by GM Marcelo Flores Rios.

I do have to mention that the importance of the “Pawn Structure Approach” (just like the opening study as a whole) becomes more relevant as you climb up the rating ladder. If you are still struggling with basic tactics and simple oversights, you should probably focus on fixing that aspect of the game. 

As they say, one has to learn how to walk before they learn how to run.

C) Studying a lot of Model Games in your opening and knowing how strong players typically win those games

One good way of improving your understanding of an opening - and also the knowledge of the resulting structures - is to study Model Games by strong players in the given opening. Most Chessable courses these days do come with a set of annotated games that can serve as a good starting point. But it is always possible to do some digging and find and annotate your own examples.

Even if you don’t understand all the details, just knowing one key idea/the narrative of how the game went can be of tremendous help. I still vividly remember how one of my teammates won a nice game in the Panov Caro-Kann and then said something along the lines: Yeah, I remembered how Fischer had a passed pawn and then promoted it into a queen in his game against Euwe in this line, so I just followed in his footsteps.

Coach's Corner Vjekoslav Nemec 3

6. What is your preferred way to improve at the endgame?

Similarly as with the strategy - I think a healthy balance between acquiring knowledge and applying it is the best way of improving the endgame. In the field of endgame, the former should consist of some study of theoretical endgames (100 Endgames You Must Know is a good and sufficient resource - although I wouldn’t bother to study all the chapters) and study of practical endgames (I like the book Understanding Chess Endgames by John Nunn, although there are many others, such as Silman’s Complete Endgame Course, Shereshevsky’s Endgame Strategy and, of course, Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual. To name a few.).

To apply this knowledge, one should, ideally, play as many endgames as possible. In this context, your typical online blitz game (3+0 or 5+0 - or even 10+0) is not ideal, because it typically doesn’t provide you with enough time toward the end of the game to practice the endgame properly. Therefore, playing games with longer time control - or scheduling specific sessions where one starts the game from an endgame position (a method advocated by ChessDojo in their Chess Training Program) is a good way to get some much-needed practice in the endgame phase.

CM Nemec’s Courses: 

If you found some useful advice in this article, we recommend trying CM Nemec’s free courses on Chessable. You can even try out the aforementioned Gustafsson’s Aggressive 1.e4, without paying a cent. 

Short & Sweet: Gustafsson’s 1.e4 - world-class analysis meets detailed, club player-friendly explanation to produce an opening repertoire that hits hard. Try it here.

Short & Sweet: Modern Defense - CM Nemec introduces you to one of his opening specialities: the Modern Defense. Fans of interesting imbalances and dynamic play will love this one.

Short & Sweet: Open Sicilian - Maroczy Style - an intro to an offbeat but effective way to fight the Sicilian. Immobilize your opponent’s pieces in all the major variations.