An interview with Luka Popov, adult improver and YouTuber
Image created with Crello. Used with permission.

An interview with Luka Popov, adult improver and YouTuber

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A few months ago I had the good fortune to stumble across a fellow user that started the Adult Chess Improver YouTube Channel geared at those of us who are adults and working to improve our chess games.  In the past months, I have really enjoyed the content he has created which includes game analysis, book reviews, his study methodology, board exercises to improve chess vision, and so much more.

I recently approached him and asked him if he would be willing to be interviewed for my blog and he kindly agreed!  

So without further ado, here's a short interview with Luka Popov, an adult improver who has shown significant improvement in his chess.  Enjoy!

Glenn: Luka, it is great to have an opportunity to interview you. We actually have a bit in common. Not only are both of us adult improvers, but we also both possess doctoral degrees; you in theoretical physics and myself in medicine. So I suspect we both are fascinated by and sincerely enjoy the learning process. This is probably why we like chess! I think there is more chess knowledge, texts, and theories than many academic disciplines!

Luka: Yes, it looks like we are in the same boat 😊 Well, as Karpov famously said, chess is art, science, and sport. I guess we are both attracted by the “science” part.

Glenn: So let's get some of the basics out of the way! Tell me a little bit about yourself, where you live, and what you do for a living.

Luka: I am 38 years old, I live and work in Croatia. As a theoretical physicist I used to work at the Department of Theoretical Physics (University of Zagreb) most of my career, but then I shifted more towards applied science. Currently, I work as an engineer in a private R&D facility. I am also a family man, father of three.

Glenn: When did you start getting serious about chess improvement and how have you gauged your improvement (rating, etc.)?

Luka: Well, I used to play some chess as a kid for a start. I played with my father, grandmother, relatives, friends. But nothing too serious nor competitive. When I was a student, I joined the chess club at the Department of Mathematics. This was the first time I experienced competitive OTB chess. At that time I did work on my chess occasionally, mostly using Chessmaster 9000 software, but still nothing too serious. Then I quit chess completely and I came back to it some 15 years later, June 2019 to be precise. And this time it’s serious. 😊

Glenn: And as I recall from your videos, you play both online and over-the-board in the real world. Are you involved with any local chess clubs at all?

Luka: First let me say that I don’t see chess as a video game, never have and never will. For me, chess is a beautiful, ancient board game and this is how it should be played, over the board. Online chess is very useful for training purposes, but the main goal for me is to play OTB chess. So yes, I am a member of the small local chess club and I use every opportunity to play real chess.

Glenn: Are you doing tournaments? And if so, is this a new experience for you? Any tips for online players who want to venture into the tournament world?

Luka: Yes, whenever I can. Unfortunately, I didn’t have many opportunities since all this virus thing. I did play one classical OTB tournament, and a few local blitz and rapid tournaments. If everything goes well, I hope to attend a big classical tournament in January 2021. I think every online player should try the real tournament, it's a completely different experience than online chess. The thrill, the adrenaline, body language of your opponent, the pressure to play well… there are just so many dimensions of this sport that cannot be experienced online.

Glenn: I'm curious what your daily study routine is like?

Luka: I don’t have a fixed routine, but there are some things I try to do on a daily basis, and these include: tactical training, one rapid online game, reading a chess book, watching chess videos. These are the things I do every day, although I can’t always allocate the same amount of time. But I believe that with this kind of routine I am making sure that I am always in shape and that I work on all areas of chess.

Glenn: Looking back over your time as an adult improver, what study habit has given you the most return for your investment?

Luka: For any adult improver, tactics training is something that will give you the fastest results in terms of rating and improvement. For me, it was building pattern recognition skills using various online resources and working on tactics from various books. Currently, I am working with Laszlo Polgar’s famous book, improving my calculation and visualization by solving hundreds of mate-in-2 problems.

Glenn: One challenge for adult improvers is that we often don't know where to focus our studying: openings, the middle game, or the end game. In your studies, how are you dividing your time between these three? Any advice?

Luka: First advice I can give to any adult improver is to forget about the openings. I mean this literally, just don’t study openings. OK, you should know some 5-10 moves of the mainline opening you play and some ideas about where do you want your pieces to be. So bring out your pieces, put the king to safety, connect the rooks, and just play chess. On a sub-master level, you really don’t need a lot of opening theory. Having said that, I think the main focus should be on tactics. Any kind of tactical training will do it, but I think focusing on basic and elementary tactics can be most beneficial. By doing basic tactics one builds pattern recognition skills and decreases the frequency of one-move blunders in one’s games. Some very respected authors and coaches say that you should do the same set of puzzles several times over until you can solve each one within 7 seconds, which means that your brain picked up a pattern. As for the endgames, an amateur should know some very basic technical endgames, and the rest of it will come with experience and the ability to calculate.

Glenn: At some point in your adult improvement journey, you started making fantastic chess instructional videos. I personally have enjoyed many of these videos. Have you enjoyed this process thus far? How are the videos being received by the adult improvement community?

Luka: As I strived to achieve chess improvement, I realized there is quite a community of adult chess improvers out there. So I joined several forums and discord channels, in order to connect with other improvers and share the experience. The YouTube channel was just the next step in my attempt to reach out to other adult chess improvers, to share my experience but also to hear and learn from others. I never did any video production before, so it was demanding for a start, just to figure out the technicalities of making good videos. But once I started, it proved to be a great experience. I’ve received many comments, both public and in private, from adult improvers offering me support. Many viewers find that they can identify with my efforts since they have the same path and struggles. And there aren’t that many channels dedicated to adult improvers by the adult improvers. Most chess channels are run by titled players who started with competitive chess as kids, and they often just cannot understand the struggles and problems of late starters. I made many videos at once, just wanting to share my experience and training methods, and now I will continue to analyze my games on the channel, emphasizing my own weaknesses which are often common to all adult chess improvers. In this way, I hope I can help myself and others to overcome these weaknesses. Some viewers suggested that I should offer some kind of individual mentorship for improvers who need some more concrete guidance, so I’ve recently started a Patreon page, mostly for that purpose.

Glenn: I'm curious since you have shown so much improvement, do you have any personal goals to become a titled player in the future?

Luka: I honestly don’t think it’s realistic for a late starter. A more realistic goal, and my personal goal for that matter, would be to reach 2000 ELO rating and just play chess as 1900-2000 player. For a title, one would have to go above 2200, and I am not sure that anyone who started as an adult can go that high. But on the other hand, we are all different and have different rating ceilings. Who knows? Maybe I will stay way below 1900, maybe not. Time will tell.

Glenn: Do you study any games of chess masters? Does any particular master resonate with you?

Luka: Yes, I often go through master games and I enjoy it very much. I always do it with a paper book and a physical board, and it gives me great pleasure. My favorite player by far is Paul Morphy, and I really like going through his games. The problem with Morphy is that he can be very hard to imitate since he was an intuitive player, often winning by brilliant combinations and by out-calculating all his opponents. The problem with contemporary masters, as well as with Soviet-era masters, is that they rely so much on the theory that it is extremely difficult for an amateur to learn from their games. This is why I believe that an amateur can learn the most from post-romantic, pre-Soviet masters, such as Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, Reti, and the like. But one should also study instructive amateur games, sometimes you can learn more from amateur’s mistakes than from master’s brilliance. Dan Heisman is a proponent of that approach, he has many very instructive videos and a book with amateur games, which I highly recommend.

Glenn: Anything else you want to share about your journey with the readers?

Luka: Just don’t get discouraged. Nobody takes adult improvers seriously… until they actually improve. So just keep working, expose your brain to as much quality chess content as you can, play slow games, analyze them afterward, and the result will surely come.

Glenn: Thank you for your time! And I look forward to continuing to enjoy your video content! Keep up the excellent work and good luck to you!

Luka: Thanks! Good luck with your great blog and stay in touch.

Please be sure to check out Luka's fantastic YouTube channel:

I'm a 40-something, long-time lover of chess who has always been in awe of the complexity of this beautiful game.  I use this blog to share the incredible history of chess and offer some commentary on current chess happenings around the world.  Enjoy!