Learning to Study

GM MacMolner
May 31, 2013, 12:06 PM |
Hi everyone,

My blog can be kind of random at times, with tournament/game experiences, picking out lesser-known but very fun games, and local chess. It's been a few months since the last time I played a tournament. It's been nice to have a little time off from tournaments but I'm eager to start playing again. The time off has been good though in a few ways. Due to the fact that most of my chess these days has just purely been studying, it made me do a lot of thinking on this subject. I'd like to share some of my thoughts on this subject as well as a nice, recent blog post by Jacob Aagaard on his Quality Chess Publishing blog.

Here is what he writes on the subject (my comments are in bold):

1. Analyse your own games deeply (and the games of others).

This is the most important tool to improve. Your games will always be the best to look at.

2. Solve puzzles regularly (my advice is six times a week x 20-30 minutes).

3. Understand what type of player you are and adjust your style accordingly.

Many players have a certain style of play that they prefer. Openings are the easiest things to adjust in order to reach the type of positions that you prefer. If you aren't convinced that you are better in a certain area of chess or that you have a strong preference for certain types of positions, maybe doing a thorough review of your games will help you see what you are doing well and in what types of positions your decisions aren't the best that they can be.

4. Push your levels of concentration upwards and become a fighter.

Many coaches even advise their students to have a no draw rule unless the draw is very clearly favorable to you. A fighter does not mean you have to play sharp wild games - but that you must be prepared to play for the maximum in all stages of the game. If you follow elite tournaments, how many times has Carlsen squeezed a win out of what looks like a drawish endgame?

5. Play real openings. Throw away the London, c3-Sicilian or whatever rubbish you are playing. If you want to develop as a player, playing main lines is important.

Even though this may seem a bit over the top, I think there is value to playing/learning main lines, whether or not you want to make them your main opening choice. Popular lines/main lines change all the time but they generally are forcing, and very direct. It's useful to see how strong players generally see a way to get the maximum out of a particular position/opening system.

6. Learn by heart all the 222 obligatory positions from Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual.

Not for the faint of heart.

7. Play through game collections with good comments.

This might vary from player to play; for some the Move by Move stuff from Everyman might be reasonable. But for most readers of this blog, I recommend books written either by great players, or books with a great reputation. For example, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Kasparov, Nunn, Anand, Karpov (the old books), San Luis 2005 and so on.

The Zuerich 1953 book by Bronstein also comes to mind in this category. If possible finding a game collection of a strong player who plays your opening would surely be good as well.

8. Use your body to the best effect for the game (stop poisoning it, for example).

9. Analyse your openings deeply and find your own systems with your own ideas.

The higher the rating, the more important this becomes.

10. Understand the basic principles of dynamics, statics and strategic play. These can be studied indefinitely of course, but you can always improve your understanding.

I find it easy to get caught up in studying openings but of course your studies must extend to the other areas of the game.

There are always a lot of ways to do anything. Anyone who wants to sell “the only way” is either selling chess studies or tablebase printouts. In the same way, it is possible to reach the same conclusion by many different thinking processes.

The only real danger here is that you fall in love with one system and become fixed to it. You can be the openings guy, or the endings guy, or the expert in solving studies. My closest-sitting colleague in the office, GM Colin McNab, is the last two. I am not sure if it has given his over-the-board play any great advantage, compared to if he had spread out his studies. On the other hand, he just regained the British Championship in solving (yes, Nunn and two other World Champions were competing)…

If you have to pick only one strategy (could be ‘Number 11’ for all I care), I would recommend to either do the one that excites you or the one you know you have been delaying forever.

I think this is a great comment that would apply to myself. I know there are areas of my game that need work but I am reluctant to do it because I don't enjoy that kind of studying as much. Only you will be able to tell what that means for you but it is definitely something good to think about.

I think he makes a lot of good points in his posts. I have never seen anyone recommend learning all 222 main positions from Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual, but I am sure it would be quite helpful. I'm excited to give this a shot, and I will definitely let you all know how helpful this turns out to be!

I think GM Aagaard does a good job offering a good chess-based study program but I think there is something else that helps me a great deal. I know that I can plan to do all the studying in the world but actually making it happen is another story. One of the things that I have found to have helped me the most is creating a daily routine. The routines may vary for each person but I think it is very important to have your body in sync with your brain. The best way to do this is to program your body and follow along the path that makes you feel best.

I hope that this helps! If you have any suggestions on what works best for you or anything else that could be useful on the list, please share!