On the Topic of Chess Coaches: Part 1
I get lots of people asking me questions about chess coaching, partly because I’ve worked with numerous coaches of various strengths, ranging from B-Class to GM. The other reason I think I get asked the question so often is that I’ve had a good bit of success in my USCF rating climb, and it’s not at all so common for an adult to improve so much –at least, in regard to OTB rating, whereas many adult players online will climb to Master strength within months of learning the game. I’ll touch topics that are typically broached, but feel free to ask any question might have in the comments below, and I may answer your question (possibly in a follow-up blog post). To give you an idea of my experience with coaches, I’ve had lessons with no less than 5 GMs, 1 IM, a couple of FMs, a couple NMs, a few Experts, and a B-Class player.
I think the question I get asked most is how much of a difference I see in coaching/teaching ability between Grandmasters and players with lower titles. Actually, the assumption that people make in asking me that is the same assumption I had when I first sought out coaching, namely, that stronger players will make better coaches. Nope. Not in my experience. Stronger players make for coaches who are more capable of finding the objective, absolute best move in a position. Even then, GM-level coaches make mistakes, and I’ve had it happen in my games when they analyzed them. Humans make mistakes, and also anyone not committed to coaching will do a subpar job, often finding “good enough” moves in their analysis. I’ve felt my worst lessons have been with GMs, as a matter of fact. That’s not to say that all GM coaches aren’t good. I currently have two of the best coaches I’ve come across, and both are GMs. What I’m saying is that it should not be assumed that GMs are the best coaches. For my money, they have the worst batting average, actually. A good player is not necessarily a good teacher, and any excellent player who is not completely engaged and devoted to his or her teaching endeavor will not make a good coach. I hope this doesn’t come as too much of a shock to the reader. I remember when I first started grad school for physics. I was not a good teacher. I was very competent in content knowledge, but I had no awareness of the learners’ minds or any meta-level knowledge about where students might get caught up and fail to understand certain things. I was so bad at teaching at first that I simply asked myself, “Is there something mentally wrong with these people? Why don’t they get it?” Working closely with GMs has led me to an important conclusion: most of them got so strong at such a young age that they don’t even remember learning the information, and so have no real ability to convey the information. (Learning as a youth under a certain age is very different from learning as an adult above 25, but that’s another topic for another day.) Consequently, I’ve had GMs sitting in disbelief because I didn’t understand something. One GM I have in mind said, “What is there to understand [or not understand] here?” It should not be simply assumed that there is a positive correlation between playing strength and coaching ability. 3 of those 5 GMs I’ve had coaching with turned out to be the worst of all the coaches I’ve had. I could elaborate on the reasons why strong players can make especially bad coaches if there is interest, but I’ll leave it at that.
After explaining the above to a fellow player, he asked “what it is that makes a good coach?” I think this is the same as any discipline. Q: How do you get good at physics? A: By doing physics. Q: How do you get good at teaching physics? A: By teaching physics, and doing it in an intentional kind of way and reflecting on the content in a more cerebral way. So it goes with chess. Just insert “chess” for “physics” in the Q&A. The strongest players I’ve come across who have also proven to be excellent teachers and coaches (and who continue to coach me) are GM Miroslav Miljkovic and GM Leonid Yudasin. What I find different about them versus other GMs is that they are highly reflective of content (they try to understand why things are the way they are, rather than simply accepting that X, Y, and Z are simply so); they are reflective upon their student’s thought process and ask quite often what their student is thinking; and they are conscious of pedagogical methods and are interested in creation of exercises for training purposes. You can see how a player might be extremely strong and completely inattentive to these considerations. Quite a large portion of titled players will simply try to give you a bunch of opening lines to burn time, so they can get their money and dip. This sort of gives you a rubric for deciding whether you have a real coach on your hands or someone earning their buck and looking to burn time or just not caring as much as they should about what you get out of time.
All the time, I get asked, “Do I really need a coach that is a GM?” Of course, I get this question for economic reasons. After all, lower rated players tend to charge much less than titled players. I had a rough start to my chess career, because I started so late in life, learning how the pieces move only months before my first competition. I always hung around stronger players at the Pittsburgh Chess Club, whether 1400 or 1900. I definitely think lots of information can be freely gleaned from stronger players with no pedagogical training, or who do not have a mind toward coaching and formal instruction; but don’t be fooled, these individuals aren’t coaches. You find fewer people below 2200 who claim to be coaches, but there are excellent coaches under 2200. Actually, I know an academic historian and professor (i.e., pedagogically knowledgeable) out in the state of Washington who is reputedly an excellent coach and teacher, but he’s only ever reached a strength of about 1980. Yet his knowledge of training methods and extensive knowledge of historical games, for example, surely give him enough content knowledge to couple with his expertise in teaching to make an effective coach for players below a certain strength. So no, I don’t think everyone needs a coach who is a GM. Not by a long shot. The question is what minimum rating difference is best. I’m not a hundred percent sure about this. The next question springs from this one.
TO BE CONTINUED...