Get Better at Chess for Everyone: The Pilot

Get Better at Chess for Everyone: The Pilot

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For 14 years I wrote a column with my best improvement advice for players of all levels. It won seven awards for "Best Instruction" in North America from the Chess Journalists of America. Yes, the name "Novice Nook" was a misnomer - it was not just for Novices, not at all.

But currently the owner of that material, Chess Cafe, is in flux, and it is no longer easily available for the public (well, yes, apparently there are some illegal copies, but those I cannot endorse). So how are we to get this advice into the hands of our faithful readers?

How about a new monthly column!?

This time I am not letting the editor name the column. It's about getting better at chess for everyone, so how about the name Getting Better at Chess for Everyone? Don't like that one? Well, we can always change the name later.

There are so many aspects to chess improvement that it is difficult to know where to start, but let's review some basics that underlie all improvement:

  1. Better players make better moves. Plain and simple. So if you don't know how to analyze to find better moves, your improvement will be greatly hindered, to put it mildly.
  2. You can't find better moves if you don't take, or have, time to look. So playing all fast games or playing slow games quickly also greatly hinders any improvement.
  3. Basic tactics and safety underlie all good moves. As GM Shirov wrote about easy tactics in the Foreword to one tactics book, "I have come to believe they are the basis of everything in chess."
  4. Everyone I know who has become a national master has spent years playing in dozens, if not hundreds, of slow OTB events. With the advent of the internet, it may be possible to become very strong by "simulating" these slow events online, but I don't know anyone who has done this, and it's clearly more difficult.
  5. Bobby Fischer went to John Collins' home every day after school and studied with Collins and his other strong students, such as Bill Lombardy. Almost every other strong player spend a ton of time "in the chess culture" hanging out and analyzing with strong players. So if you think you are going to get to be really good by locking yourself in a closet and just studying chess, well, it's not impossible, but it's highly unlikely.

Fischer via Wikipedia.

Let's take a look in a little more detail at item #1 on the list.

I have run across the following improvement paradigm (idea or method) quite a bit in recent years:

Player A is desperate to improve. He plays many fast or intermediate (10-30 min) games online. He takes lessons from a strong player who teaches him openings and specific endgames like Lucena or Philidor. He studies intermediate tactics. He has lots of time to study but doesn't play in many, or any, Over-the-Board tournaments.

So when Player A goes from one game to another, he expects to improve over time by slowly improving his understanding of those openings and endgames, and recognizing more tactics from his tactical study.

Yet Player A hardly ever improves at all! Maybe he is 1200,1500, or maybe he has even gotten to 1700 (rating are not absolute, they are relative to the rating pool, but that is a story for another time). In any case, Player A has made some progress, but that jump up to expert or master seems forever elusive.

What is wrong with Player A's improvement paradigm? Lots.

Let's digress again to make a point. I have written a "Chess Tip of the Day" on Twitter for the past five years, and a couple of years ago I was writing about improving analysis skills.

One follower responded to me that he had gone from beginner to 1500 by studying various chess knowledge: Openings, endgames, tactical patterns, principles. Yet he acknowledged: "Dan, you have convinced me that if I want to become a strong player, I am going to have to learn how to analyze!" Yup.

My guess is that chess is only about 1/3 knowledge and 2/3 skills. And the main skill is analysis. Sure, knowledge supports analysis; for example, recognizing a tactical pattern and converting that into knowledge about the safety of the move is one of the most important parts of analysis.

Yet in listening to players think out loud (see my book "The Improving Chess Thinker"), very few players rated under 1700 know how to analyze very well, if at all. And many, if not most, do something very dangerous: they rely solely on tactical pattern recognition to determine safety. Tactical recognition is extremely important and vital and necessary to be good at safety determination, but it's not sufficient!

Just because you don't see danger doesn't mean it's not there; there are many easy tactical patterns that are not well known. If you don't see danger, you can't conclude there is no safety issue; you have to augment that pattern search with careful analysis. Good players know this instinctively; so instinctively that sometimes they forget to tell their students that consistently taking time to analyze for danger is a prerequisite for good slow play.

Another big point is that almost all tactic books are written from the standpoint "The opponent's position is not safe. You are to play and win (or mate)". The problem with this is two-fold:

First, in a real game you are not given any requirements when presented with the opponent's move. I think everyone understands this problem. 

But the bigger problem is exemplified when I ask a student why they lost and they reply "I missed a tactic" and then I say "But that's ambiguous; did you miss a tactic YOU could have played (offense), or did you make an unsafe move that allowed a tactic for the opponent that you missed he would have? (defense)"

The answer is almost always the latter. The player did not check to see if his move was safe or, if he did, he relied on pattern recognition only and did not "see" the danger. This happens MUCH less with titled players; they know that making sure their move is safe is actually a more important step than finding if their opponent's move is not safe. That's one reason I just wrote a new book "Is Your Move Safe?", available in about two months. Here's an example from the book. White to play. Is 1.Ne5 safe?

But if pattern recognition is insufficient for determining safety of all candidate moves, and analysis is often required, this takes time. It also takes a consistent dedication to performing the safety check for all candidate moves. 

One of the most important principles is "If you see a good move, don't play it. Look for a better one.

Yet if you play mostly 20 minute games and they go for an average of 40 moves, that is only 30 seconds per move. In 30 seconds masters can easily determine if multiple candidate moves are safe, but they can hardly easily determine which one(s) are best. That just takes time, no matter how good you are. But amateurs have trouble determining if one candidate move is safe in 30 seconds, much less multiple ones, much less finding which among the safe ones are best.

No wonder Player A, who plays mostly 10-30 minute games (at the slowest), is having trouble. He has never learned to analyze, and does not usually have time to determine if multiple candidate moves are safe, move after move, game after game.

So he consistently makes unsafe moves and, no matter how well he was taught the Caro-Kann or the Lucena, if his opponent finds the unsafe move and punishes it, he usually loses.

Then Player A locks himself back in the closet and learns the Caro-Kann better and studies more intermediate tactics (even though the unsafe moves he made usually fell prey to easy, not intermediate, tactis), continues to play fast, and does not have (or take) time to learn how to analyze carefully.

Think Magnus Carlsen is worried?