Learning how to play Chess from a Teacher's Perspective

Learning how to play Chess from a Teacher's Perspective

Feb 4, 2013, 8:28 PM |

I am not very good at chess, comparatively speaking. I believe my rating is somewhere around 1100-1200. I have been playing chess since I was about ten. I played with my dad, and I can tell you that we really didn't play correctly. When we first started playing we didn't know about castling, let alone enpasante or really even how to use stalemate. But we played.

 Over the last year, I have been really wanting to master a game. At first I thought, well maybe a video game would do. But after trying several games I liked I decided that was not a good idea. But even though I am not very good at chess, and had only really played my dad and my best friend, I decided to get serious about the game and truly study the game that I have really loved all my life. So I started to learn, read, and play games. But there was one problem. There really isn't anybody in the chess world who really knows how to teach.

Sure, they know chess. They have learned from experience and figured out how to better present their concepts and methodologies to their students. But as I have been reading, learning, and playing for the past four months I became more and more confused by many different things. What was the problem. Well the problem was chess itself, and the fact that those who teach chess are not natural teachers. But I am determined and I am a college professor. So, if there is one thing I know it is how to teach.

In Jeremy Silman's “How to Reasses Your Chess, 3rd edition,” the author starts out with a chapter on the Endgame and starts teaching us the concept of opposition. Now to be fair, I find Silman to be the best chess writer out there, because he uses the closest methodology to that of a good teacher. He speaks to the level of his students. But he has this chapter on the Endgame first. By his own admission it shouldn't be in the book. It definitely shouldn't be first. But he felt the chapter contained necessary endgame knowledge everyone must know. The problem with this idea is that chess doesn't start in the Endgame, it starts in the Opening.

The first thing a teacher must learn in order to be successful is he or she must start at the level of understanding of his or her students and go from there. Why is this? Biology. The brain cannot learn anything it does not already know. What does this mean?

The brain is the primary instrument through which we understand the world around us. As we interact with the world, the brain creates synapses that connect to other synapses and structures in the brain. These synapses are pathways through which electrical impulses move to those structures of the brain, and therefore are the means communication between one structure and another and the rest of the body. As synapses connect from one structure to another they make different connections between those structures which allow us to relate information in different ways.

The problem with teaching is, if we start teaching a subject in an area the student knows nothing about, he or she will have very little to no ability to understand that subject because there is no pathway in his or her brain to build from. This is why starting from the Endgame is a bad idea from a teaching perspective. A student doesn't start a game of chess from the Endgame they start from the beginning which we know as the Opening. But this is where another problem comes in. We are constantly bold by other armatures, masters, grandmasters etc. that we should not focus on the Opening, we should focus on tactics. But the problem with focusing on tactics is we may do tactical problem after problem after problem and begin to learn and recognize tactics, but to pull them off in game, you must be able to calculate; a subject of which there is a surprising lack of information. We can play a game and if we see a tactical position, then we may be able to pull of the tactic. But we have no idea how to create the situations in which those tactics arise, making us rely solely on positional opportunity, not planned strategy. The only way to do so is to learn positional play. But the problem with learning positional play is we have to know how to evaluate the board. Therefore we have to know analysis. And this requires knowledge of the middle game. But in order to get to the middle game the Opening rears its ugly head agian, which we should not spend much time on until we are rated at about 2000. This could take years! This doesn't even touch on the Endgame, which requires knowledge of the Middle-game in order to reach a favorable Endgame and the viscous cycle continues. God ,chess is hard!

No wonder the vast majority of the US Chess Federation's members are rated under 1000, in other words, beginners. And this list doesn't even include the myriad of other topics such as prophylaxis, pawn structure, opening variations, thought process, attack and defense, and the list goes on. How is a student supposed to navigate all of this and learn chess in a way that can be understood, and at the same time will not waste a lot of their time?

Well as I have been reading, I have started to do things and come up with a plan that better suits me, and that I hope will help me learn in an efficient way. I have no idea if I will be successful but at least it is a start and I wish to share these insights with the Chess.com community in the hopes that those people who are in the same boat as me will save themselves at least four months of floundering around just trying to figure out where to begin and for that matter how to begin and why. I am doing this with the understanding that everyone learns in a different way. For some, the old way of starting with the Endgame works. If it does, they should continue. If my ideas don't work for you that is fine. But if you are having problems learning, and my method doesn't suit you, then I hope at least it will inspire you to find a way that does.

My sensei always says, “Repetition is the royal road to learning.” The problem with chess is that it is not conducive to repetition and therefore, not conducive to learning. This is because all of the topics I have listed above are interrelated and you end up doing what I have been doing for the last four months: bouncing from subject to subject like a lost toddler in a mall. You have no idea what you are seeing, you just know it's shinny and you want it. Then you see something else that is shinny and you go for that, and you end up going in circles never finding mama. So, what's the answer?

Another saying of my Sensei's is, “The best way to find a solution is to accurately articulate the problem.” The problem is: How do we learn chess in a way that we understand it, without wasting time, or going in circles bouncing from subject to subject? How do we learn chess in a repetitive way that is both fun and understandable?

The problem with these question is our thinking. You actually need to have and understand some basic information about the Opening, Middle-game, Endgame, Tactics, Positional Play, Calculation and Evaluation BEFORE you can answer these two questions, then you have to relate each topic to the others before you can grasp what the answers are. So let's start from the beginning.

It is obvious that a good opening-position leads to a good Middle-game. And a good Middle-game leads to a good Endgame. All three of these require knowledge of tactics, positional play, calculation and evaluation, strategy and planning. The common denominator between these topics left is evaluation. Without evaluation you will not understand positional play, be able to calculate or find tactics. It is evaluation that exists at every level of the game.

The various openings of the game are merely evaluations of opening moves. The nice thing is, that a portion of the evaluation has already been done for you for the first 4 to 15 moves: where to put your pieces. The rest is understanding why the moves are played. With this you have the ability to achieve a good position, regardless of variation, which brings us to the Middle-game. The Middle-game is made up of Positional play and requires good evaluation skills, so you can appropriately read the board and know what moves to make. By appropriately reading the board, you can determine what you like about it, what you don't like about it, and how you can exploit each to your needs. This helps you achieve your planning and strategy, and whether or not you will need specific tactics. Once you find out what the position demands you begin to find you candidate moves. Finding those moves is what positional play is all about. Then you begin to calculate. As you calculate your appropriate moves you will be able to find any available tactics and slowly find the weaknesses in your opponent's position and yours so you can plan accordingly. This will eventually lead to either mate or an Endgame which will eventually conclude the game in either mate, resignation or draw. So what does all of this mean?

Well This is what I have decided for myself and the plan I have developed. This is of course a broad big picture overview, there are many more areas within each of these topics that are relevant and will need study, but for a beginner to intermediate player, such as myself, this is a good place to start. In his book, “How to Build an Opening Repertoire,” Steve Giddons gives some very sound advice. Find an opening you like and stick to it for the rest of your chess career. This is the best way to understand your opening. It will also prevent you from getting buried in theory hell. If you play your opening over, and over again you will begin to see how it works and build an instinctive knowledge with it. This is what Bobby Fischer did with his openings. He knew them so well, that even though they made him predictable, he knew what to do no matter what the response.

When building an opening Repertoire for White, you need to choose an opening for either e4, d4, or c4. For Black, you need to have a response for e4, d4, AND c4. Even though there are other openings these are the most common.

You must know that d4 and c4 openings tend to lead to more positional play for White, and e4 tends to lead toward more attacking, tactical play for White. So, in order to find your openings, you need to know whether or not you are a tactical or positional player. This is a bit of an arbitrary distinction, as both positional, and tactical play are equally necessary for sound chess, but according to Andrew Soltis in his, “The Inner Game of Chess,” players tend to excel at one or another. This is where tactics trainer comes in.

In order to help determine what kind of player I am, I started with tactics. I put Tactics Trainer on an Elo rating of 700-800 and worked on the tactics until I could correctly answer ten in a row, then I pushed it up to 800-900. I cam currently on 900-1000. And after about a week of working on tactics trainer, I decided I SUCK at tactics. I'm going to continue to work them the same way I have been, but I take this as a sign that I am a positional player. So, I chose D4 Queen's Gambit for white. And fortunately, the work is paying off. I am starting to get a better and better understanding of my opening, because I am not bouncing from opening to opening. When I have a good understanding of the basic Queen's Gambit I will pick a variation and start to work on it. After a long while, I will then start to work on transpositions. But not for a while, probably a year. This way I have a sound opening to get me a good position, but will not get bogged down in variations and memorization. This doesn't mean I can't or won't add a new opening, but I WILL NOT throwout my old one, because the experience will be invaluable. I haven't chosen any black openings yet, but I think I am leaning toward one of the Indian openings.

In order to understand positional play I am going to use Jeremy Silman's imbalances. I know he has his detractors, but I feel they seriously misunderstand his ideas. First, they are principles. Understanding principles are actually so much better than learning specific moves when you are trying to learn chess. The reason is because a move is only germane to a very specific position, where as a principle can be applied to almost an infinite number of positions. This does not mean that his principles should be followed as if chiseled stone, there are exceptions where they will need to be broken and it is the position that determines this. But I have not found or heard of anyone who explains positional play better.

Moreover, I feel that a lot of people don't cross reference his imbalances so they gain a real understanding of them. For example. The Imbalance of Minor Pieces governs the Bishops and Knights. Silman says when you have a closed position, Knights are better. But when you have an open position Bishops are better. Under the Imbalance of space, Silman advices one to push pawns in closed positions and use pieces in open positions. He also says, Both Knights do not particularly work well together so you should trade one off at some point. Whereas, the Bishop pair works very well together so I whould try to keep them both. But if I loose one, then I should make sure my pieces and pawns do not interfere with my Bishop. So, I know if I have an open position, I should use my pieces ocus on my Bishops and put my pawns on the opposite color of my bishops so the pawns do not interfere with my bishops. When the position is closed I should focus on my knights and push my pawns. And I can use one or both of my bishops to trade off one of my opponent's pieces, This gives you a much better idea of what to do on the board than simply looking at the Imbalances separately. Plus by looking for the Imbalances to determine your position, you have a mental checklist so you don't over-look something. I am not saying it will be perfect, it won't, we are all human. But, it will give me a framework with which to organize my thoughts so I'm not mindlessly pushing pieces around.

Also this gives me a way to look for tactics. According to “Winning Chess Tactics,” by Yassir Seirawan, in order to find a tactic you need to look for an, Weakened or open King, Stalemated King, Unguarded, and or inadequately guarded pieces. Thus I add this to my Imbalance checklist so I will look for tactics every time I move. Also, this will help me evaluate my own position so I know what I have to defend. Also I am going to read “How to Defend in Chess,” by Colin Crouch, and, “The Art of the Attack,” by Vladimir Volkovic, so I increase my prophylaxis (the art of preventing my opponent's moves) and my strategic planning.

That takes care of the Opening, ositional play, tactics, strategy, planning and evaluation. Now we have to deal with Calculation. For calculation I am reading Andrew Soltis', “The Inner Game of Chess: How to calculate and Win.” It has been an eye opener. I am only on page 102 out of over 350 pages, but it has corrected my thinking about chess on so many different levels, specifically how grandmasters think.

Unfortunately we treat them as gods when they are actually only human. I know this and I didn't realize how many assumptions I was making about them. I would think to myself, how the hell could I miss that, a grandmaster wouldn't have. Guess what, they do, all the time. It reminded me of something a professor of mine said in one of my philosophy classes. “We treat Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as philosopher Gods. They aren't Gods they are simply men who had good ideas. Do you think THEY thought their ideas would be the foundation of practically all Western Thought? No, Probably not.” And they didn't. Even though many of their thoughts have actually been very destructive, but that's another topic entirely. The Grandmasters aren't Gods, they think just as we do. They make the same mistakes we do. They miss the same moves and positions we do. When Mikhail Botvinnik lost the 1955 Soviet-American match he said, “I need to work on my two move variations.” This isn't deep 16+ calculations into a position. It's two. I am pretty sure everyone can do two move calculations. So, its not necessarily the case that one person needs to see a 10 move deep variation, its his analysis of the position that matters, not necessarily the calculation. So I decided I will make sure I can calculate up to four moves based on my own evaluation and I will trust it, instead of second guessing myself. When I feel confident I can calculate 4 moves ahead I will try for 5. If that's as far as I get, that's as far as I get. What is more important is my positional understanding and evaluation. If you don't understand and correctly evaluate the position, you won't be calculating the right move anyway.

For my Endgame study, I am simply going to go through “Silman's Endgame Course,” by Jeremy Silman. It is the best single chess book I have ever found, because he truly starts at the beginning, and has split each chapter by rating level. It goes from 0-1000, to 2399 level. So you get the information in bite-sized digestible chunks. When you have mastered the information you are currently working on, you can move on to the next. He actually recommends, learning each chapter up and through your current rating. Then holding off until your rating improves. When you have moved to the next level, then you can move on in the book.

So, How am I going to apply all of this. Well, I will slowly choose my openings, and work on them over time instead of all at once. I have written out Silman's Imbalances and Seirawan's ideas on tactics and cross referenced them with each other. (Although Silman had a hand in Seirawan's ideas.) I have a rubric on Silman's Imbalances so I know how each Imbalance relates to the others. )I'm not posting them here because I'm not sure how copywrite law works in this area.) And I am going to use them EVERY single time I evaluate a position, whether it's over the board, or on a tactics puzzle. This way I get them into muscle memory so well, I simply do them instinctively and can concentrate my thoughts on something else. When I calculate, if I can't calculate 10 moves out I won't worry about it, I will just do the best I can. And I will continue to read Authors I feel will help in my understanding of positional and tactical play. I don't know if this plan will work, but it at least passes the logic test, and at least now I won't be bouncing from subject to subject. I'll let you know how it turns out. And I hope the ideas here will help you develop your own plan for learning how to play chess well.



Suggested Reading


How to build an Opening Repertoire, By Steve Giddons

Fundamental Chess Openings, By Paul Van Der Sterren


The Armature’s Mind, by Jeremy Silman

How to Reassess Your Chess 4th Edition, By Jeremy Silman

How to Defend, by Colin Crouch

The Art of the Attack, by Vladimir Volkovic


Silman's Complete Endgame Course, by Jeremy Silman


The Inner Game of Chess: by Andrew Soltis