On the Topic of Chess Coaches: Part 2
What is the minimum rating difference that is ideal for a coach? I’m not one hundred percent sure about this, but I do have some ideas –and I don’t think it is a static rating difference, which I’ll explain in a minute. When I began, my first coach was a guy who peaked at just under 1800, and was known for his exceptional endgame ability. That’s actually what attracted me to him. He had such a deep technical knowledge of endings and had teaching experience in Pittsburgh’s schools that he seemed like a great fit and very capable. Reportedly, he was so knowledgeable about endings that he stole a draw from an IM in a semi-serious OTB game at a coffee shop. Not bad for a player who never quite cracked 1800! I even once watched him teach GM Shabalov about a pet R-&-P ending that was theoretically drawn, at which Shabalov was deeply amused. This guy really knew his endings, in short. Two years of study with him made me so good with endings that my coaches think it might be the strongest part of my game, and I often catch compliments from respectable players. Moral: rating might not be quite so important as you think, especially considering that the physical brain performance required by play might not accurately exhibit the amount of knowledge an old player might have. As it turns out, in my second year of playing tournament chess, I defeated that coach with a tactical shot on a Saturday, but went right back to studying under him on the following Tuesday. In the case of this endgame coach, he was easy to pick out of a crowd of coaches, because he had an over-developed aspect of his game. At any rate, I think it is safe to say that players 300-400 points stronger than yourself, and who also have some kind of pedagogical expertise and teacher/coaching experience make good bets for coaching selections. As you go up the rating ranks, fewer points of difference make more of a difference. For example, players rated 2000 are going to get a great deal out of a coach like NM Dan Heisman, not only because of his theoretical knowledge and OTB experience, but also because of his inexhaustible knowledge of practical aspects of the game, such as clock management. When my primary coach, GM Miljkovic, found out I would be studying with GM Yudasin, he said he also would benefit from GM Yudasin’s coaching, even though 100 points or so separate them. There’s simply so much more knowledge contained in every 100 points, as you go up the rating ladder. That’s part of the reason it gets so difficult to improve as you go up. I’d say 300 points is plenty of difference, as a guideline, when choosing a coach. The pedagogical knowledge is important, too; and you’d be especially well served if the coach has developed a lot of special training exercises or knows of many methods commonly in use.
When I mention that I have had coaching with relatively low rated players, in terms of the grand scheme of things, I am often asked when I know that I’ve graduated a coach. This can be tricky, especially if you have improved to, say, 1250, and have a coach rated 1500. It might be time to get a slightly stronger coach, in that case. In my case with the endgame coach I mentioned above, I was actually higher rated than my coach before I switched coaches. There was a very specific reason for that, though: endgame expertise. I tried to work with a NM on endings next, but I knew a very large amount of his endgame instructional material, and so I went with a fairly well known IM to train endings instead. The trade-off was big: I was paying way, way, way more than I was with the B-Class player, and so I went from 15+ hours of instruction per week on endings down to 2-4. Shortly after that, I dropped the coach who was teaching me endings exclusively, because I felt like I could better fill in the holes in my knowledge with books. That was partially a practical decision, because the IM was more of a teacher only (i.e., gave great instruction), but not a fantastic coach (i.e., didn’t assess the student’s knowledge well, and so didn’t have a fantastic idea about what the student needed most to fill in knowledge holes).
I have one important piece of advice to give, as far as getting a chess coach/teacher. Make sure that you have someone who maintains a quality chess coach-teacher duality. Only if you are very fortunate to be working with someone like Leonid Yudasin will the instruction you receive be worth the money you pay. You want someone who can guide your studies and give you advice outside of your time together. You also want someone who will invest in you. Yudasin and Miljkovic both know my style, mentality, openings, ability, everything –they know me personally and as a chess player– to the point where they are very much in tune with what I need. They actually independently make some of the same suggestions for what I need to do. This can only happened if you spend time with your coaches and train with them a decent number of hours, and they see many of your games. Don’t think you’ll spend an hour a week with a GM twice a month, and they’ll magically transfer knowledge to you. It’s not realistic. This is also why, from an economic standpoint, I recommend getting someone adequate for your ability and who you can yet afford to spend 8-16 hours a month with. My students are a good example of this: I have one little girl in Florida who is an attacking demon, loves to play sharp chess, and is lost in positional game, not too unlike myself in some ways; I have a little boy in Pennsylvania who is intent on learning endings first, the way the Russian School does, and he’s already acquired an impressive ability to coordinate pieces in the middlegame because of it; and I have a little girl in Massachusetts who plays very timid chess, positionally, and is always on the verge of fearfulness (and is easily shaken when things aren’t going well on the board, or thinks they aren’t). If an auto mechanic doesn’t know your make, model, and year, or maybe only knows about motorcycles, would you take advice from him over the phone? How can a chess coach know what’s best for improvement, if he doesn’t know the player?
Well, I could go on, and I’m sure there are tons of basic questions I haven’t answered, but I tried to answer the most common ones, including giving the experienced advice I’m often asked for.