Can You Learn Chess By Watching?
Yasser Seirawan answers a fan question.

Can You Learn Chess By Watching?

Jul 17, 2018, 11:21 PM |

Dear Mr. Seirawan,

I’m new to chess—within the past year. I play “daily chess” and rate out about 1350. I’m trying to learn as much as I can about positions and tactics through videos, books ,etc. While I have, to some extent, enjoyed watching you, Mr. Ashely, and others, analyze events like the Grand Tour in Paris, I have to admit I comprehend almost NONE of what you, as a group, are analyzing. It just goes SO FAST.

Picture sitting in a nuclear physics class while all you actually know of math is addition and subtraction. It’s quite funny to see you all find pawn move e4 to e5 to be devastating to an opponent, when you can’t comprehend what the move even does.

I often end up feeling like analysts don’t remember what it’s like to be new. This isn’t necessarily the case in other events. Like golf on TV for example, they take the time to slow things down so even the newest viewers can see and comprehend what’s going on.
So, my question is: Is there a way to break things down in these events for a lower level chess player from time to time in a way that may not be profound to higher level players, but does give lower players a chance to learn too? Or is watching these events, quite frankly, just not meant for those of us at lower levels? —Mike

To quote the inimitable Yogi Berra, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

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My most enjoyable as well as the biggest leap in my chess development was “analyzing” the WC match games between Spassky and Fischer with a group of chess player friends. I was the dumbest guy in the group. Nowadays, this is considered politically incorrect. Rather, I was the least experienced player in the group. However, you’d like to say it, I felt dumb. Sometimes, I might have mustered up the courage to ask, “Why didn’t he take bishop?” Only to be told, that my suggestion was illegal. Those hurt. Someone in the group might have been charitable, offering, “A good idea though.” Those encouraging words were appreciated. My questions invariably concerned material, “Why not attack the queen?” I’d ask. An answer like, “The king is in check.” Kept me quiet for a while. Doh!

The questions however kept coming: “Why didn’t he attack the, far up the board knight, with his pawn?” An answer like, “That would weaken king three (the e6-square) over the long term.” Was far less satisfying. A king in check is clear. Once it was pointed out, I got that one. But how could a square on the chess board turn weak? Does it identify itself by changing colors when it is weak? What on earth did such an answer mean? Who cared about the long-term anyway? I wanted to win material right there and then. On rare occasions, I’d accidentally hit a bullseye, “Shouldn’t he have played his rook to the open file?” I might whisper. “That was the alternative,” came the clear answer. Such answers made me happy. In my mind, I earned a credit on such occasions. Which allowed me to ask yet another unruly question. Mostly I just watched. Rather amazed that the moves of the variations were played so quickly, most often with universal assent. I’d question, at least in my own mind, everything. Including the final judgment, “Yeah, this is a really good position for White.” Huh? Why? I would ask myself, doing my best to figure out what everyone else had already grasped.

In time, the English notation itself, which was Greek to me, began to make sense, the expressions as well. “Developing with a tempo!” Resonated almost as powerfully as a, “double-attack.” While a, “family fork,” by a knight, of course, elicited knowing smiles as well as laughter. Even though I didn’t understand the whys as well as the why nots of a move or a variation, I was learning how real players think about a position: Their selection of candidate moves; concerns for king safety; their motivations to control the center; develop their pieces; connect their rooks; outposts; diagonals; open files; even open ranks and finally their selection of a “forcing line” of play. They seemed to place a lot of emphasis on their judgement of a final position. Rejecting a line of play because one player was behind in “development” or was all bottled up confused me. “Yes, but isn’t he up a pawn?” I would think. Another one that confused me, “Yeah, this line is okay, but White hasn’t increased his advantage. We have to go back.” When did White have an advantage? When did he lose it? (Where did he put it?) Words like “compensation” or “initiative” which I never used in everyday language became familiar. Justifying a deliberate sacrifice that I had just offered might include the flourish, “…with great compensation…” I prided myself that I could at least talk the talk. I was learning by osmosis. Just being around, interacting with players, made me stop and think. I was full of questions. Curiosity is the accelerant of learning.

Mike, your message also hit upon other important topics as well. Chess most certainly suffers when broadcasting to a large audience. Most sports, golf you mentioned, are easy to understand, even if you don’t know the difference between a driver and a putter. The goal is crystal clear: To put a small golf ball into a tin cup, in as few shots as possible, from hundreds of yards away. Soccer, tennis, basketball, volleyball, just by watching, you can anticipate what a player or a team might do next. For such sports, broadcasting is easy. Commentating too!

To pick on tennis for a moment. My job as a commentator would be so easy. “Great placement to the back-hand with that ace!” “A convincing smash on the half-volley!” As well as the brilliantly obvious, “That was his third double-fault of this game!” I’m sure I’d relish, “A love game! Four aces!” For those who may have joined late, “Roger, is going to have to do a better job, in this, the second set. In the first set, he only got fifty percent of his first serves in play. Scoring a miserable sixty percent on serve. He’s going to have take some power off his first serve and concentrate upon placement.” Maybe that last one will thrill the aficionados? It seems that possessing a hundred and twenty miles an hour first serve in tennis is useful. In any case, the commentary is all so self-evidentiary. I’d like to think I’d be a very good tennis commentator.

Chess broadcasting raises much stiffer challenges. To appreciate our sport, you have to be, at the very least, conversant with the rules. Our chess rulebook by the way is a hundred plus pages thick. Some grandmasters, like Mickey Adams, when putting in the final dagger of a combination, makes the move with a softness bordering on the near apologetic. Certainly not with the emphatic roar that follows a slam dunk in basketball. It is impossible for the spectator to know, in Mickey’s case, who is even winning based on how cautiously he moves his pieces. In physical sports the answer is all too obvious. Chess commentators and their directors take it as a given that the audience knows not only the rules but a number of checkmating patterns, tactics, strategies as well as a few of the most popular Openings and Defenses along with the table of values for the pieces.

Why? Are we giving our audience too much credit? Consider that It would be impossible to commentate a chess game if I were to constantly interrupt my colleague with a, “Remind me again, how does a knight move?” How annoying it would be to answer, “What’s the difference between the Caro-Kann and the French Defense?” And, a by the way, “I’m sure our audience would like to know, who was/is Mr. French?” My colleagues would wring my neck in no time. In short, we expect that we have a “knowledgeable audience.” Excellent! But what exactly does that even mean? There are many levels of mastery as well as Class players. Should we aim at the sweet spot of our bell rating curve? Tossing out a few “master” points as well as “beginner” points as we go? Will we “lose” our audience if we delve deeply into a crucial variation, one that will likely decide the contest? If so, for an overly long period of time? “We” constantly ask ourselves lots of questions but we are not too sure we get the answers right. We try to seek a “balance” with our analysis. A balance that will appeal to our broad audience but we can’t really be certain that we hit our mark. Picking over the selectin of games we pick the “exciting” ones. At times, we practically ignore a game that we judge as boring, preferring those that have juice. What to say about an “exciting” game that happens to be all Opening theory, ending in a forced perpetual check? Nice homework? Yep, definitely easier to be a tennis commentator.

Another trend that seems to be well underway is fast time controls. Much faster in fact. Looking at the GCT 2018, only the Sinquefield Cup features a “classical” time control. There are three Rapid and Blitz chess events qualifying to Knockout-Matches in London. The Rapid games go by so quickly; it is a real challenge to speak about a “forcing line” of several moves that were missed. In Blitz getting in a mention of a simple double-attack as the action quickens is tough. Can a commentator be “entertaining” as well as “educational” when commentating a Blitz match? My answer would be “no” that a commentator really does have to choose one or the other. Teaching chess via Blitz seems like a misfit to me. Entertaining commentary for Blitz strikes me as the way to go.

Mike, for a player of your rating, I would advise watching “classical chess” broadcasts. Thanks to the leisurely pace of play you will likely learn some key plans about major Openings and Defenses. Such insights could help you make your own choices. As the Middle-game unfolds you may come to appreciate a fianchettoed bishop on an open diagonal, which simultaneously also helps protect your king. Your understanding of the Endgame, especially rook Endings is sure to be enhanced. You may also discover stories about the players, their lives challenges, that bring you closer to our chess heroes. Post-game interviews with the players allows us to understand their frustrations at their plans being thwarted as well as their elation at discovering a particular sacrificial line works for them!

Broadcasting chess events over the Internet is meant to bring attention to the event itself, the players, as well as the sponsors. In as far as possible, the “show” should flow smoothly, featuring graphics of the leader-boards, personal head-to-head statistics, allow for commercial breaks and if time permits even questions from the live audience. In short, informative, entertaining and hopefully educational as well. Quite a trifecta when you really stop to think about it.

Finally, today really is a golden period for chess and chess players. There are enormous numbers of tools from DVDs, books, tutorial software, magazine and Internet articles that are solely geared to being educational. Want to learn the French Defense? My goodness, what an assortment to choose from! If a player chooses your favorite Opening or Defense on a broadcast, what an opportunity to sit up and pay attention.