Levenfish on Chess Improvement
Grigory Levenfish, as pictured in Moscow 1936 tournament book © Wikipedia

Levenfish on Chess Improvement

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While browsing the bulletins of 1942 Kuibyshev tournament I came across an interesting article on chess improvement by Grandmaster Levenfish. Things have changed quite a bit in the 75+ years that followed, and yet the recommendations of this article still ring true.  

I decided to save this article from obscurity by translating it into English and sharing it with the broader chess community. I hope that it would help the readers on the eternal quest for self-improvement in chess!

"How To Improve Your Chess Qualification", by Grigory Levenfish

(published in the bulletin of Kuibyshev 1942 tournament, #4, p. 7)

Chess players are typically proud and ambitious, and thus majority of them strives to become if not the World Champion, then at least a champion of their own city, factory or organization. However, the topic of chess improvement remains rather hazy for many players.

Incredibly popular and yet completely incorrect is the notion in the importance of the opening theory. Many believe that to succeed in chess it is enough to cram a few hundred opening variations. One often hears the statements of the following kind from complete amateurs: “I lost the game today because I went for the unfavorable variation of the French defense.”

In fact, rote memorization of the variations and blind copying of the masters’ games brings weak players more harm than good, as it weans them away from independent thinking. The beginner players need to understand and master the main principles of the opening, rather than the wearisome details that require diving much deeper into the chess concepts. To understand such basic principles, a two-hour lecture by an experienced teacher should suffice.

The importance of the opening theory grows as the strength of chess player increases. The chess player of 4th category needs to know two times more than the player of 5th category, 3rd category requires double the knowledge of 4th category and so on. Especially important is the openings theory in the practice of grandmasters. For example, at [1938] AVRO tournament the percentage of the games that were decided reached 30%. Reuben Fine was especially good at that; among others, he caught in the opening trap such a renowned opening expert as Mikhail Botvinnik – perhaps the only such case in Botvinnik's chess career.

Majority of the chess textbooks are not really suited for the amateur beginners. In music one starts by practicing scales. Similarly, in chess one should start by mastering the art of playing with the minimal number of pieces and pawns, and only then switch to 32 pieces, i.e. to practical play. Thus, weak chess players should primarily focus on studying the endgames and not the openings.

The experience of teaching in the chess sections and courses proved that studying the endgames, especially rook ones, improves the qualification by 1-2 categories in a short space of time. In my personal pedagogical practice, the case of Alexander Tolush stands out. He was treading the boards for quite a while, with mixed success. In 1935 he attended my endgames course and then won the 1st prize in a strong tournament in Sverdlovsk by virtue of winning 5 difficult rook endgames. Soon afterwards he attained the master title. It is telling that all World Champions – Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine – were excellent endgames experts, while Euwe, a rather mediocre endgame player, was not able to retain the world champion title.

To learn the principles of development and the basic endgames, the beginner has to master chess analysis. In this case too it is useful to start with the analysis of the simplest positions and only then turn to analysis of full games. It is essential to habituate oneself to objective analysis of one’s own games, to uncover mistakes, evaluate both good and bad moves.

In order to develop analytic capabilities, it is worthwhile to play 2-3 games with friends by correspondence. The correspondence play inures one to home analysis, while aptly combining the elements of sports with science.

It is important that studying chess tactics should precede the detailed study of the strategy. The amateur needs only the elementary knowledge of strategical principles, while paying extra attention to calculating chess combinations. The following scenario is all too common: one of the opponents, after studying numerous chess books, builds his position on the basis of the most scientific principles of the modern chess school... only to succumb to a simple two-move trap. The longstanding Soviet Women Champion [Olga] Rubtsova scored many points on tactical traps against the opponents who had extensive knowledge of the positional struggle, openings and endgames, but were helpless in calculating combinations. Even in the style of certain masters there is a lack of balance between tactics and strategy, which stems from the time when they started to climb the first steps on the ladder of chess successes. Such masters instinctively avoid complications, and when they are forced into them after all, the class of their play drops dramatically. Steinitz, the creator of positional school, in his younger days recognized only tactical struggle. The chess development of Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhne, Nimzowitsch, Réti and other first-class masters followed a similar path.

Study of chess combinations develops concrete thinking, which the Distinguished Master of Sports [Peter] Romanovsky rates so highly in young players.

Now we can finally give a more precise answer to the question in the title. The following things are necessary for a quick growth of a chess player:

  1. Master the main principles of the opening and strategy
  2. Primary focus should be on studying endgames and tactical combinations
  3. Apart from over-the-board play one should play a few correspondence games to get accustomed to in-depth analysis of the position

This plan of studies assumes assiduous homework on chess theory. It could and should be diversified by off-hand training games. Practice is needed to strengthen the foundations provided by the theory. This is especially true for tactical calculations. One will never get very far in tactics on the theory alone.

Lasker once wrote that 200 hours of studies should suffice to turn an average amateur into a 1st category player. This statement has never been checked in practice and in my opinion, is too optimistic. However, the training scheme described above has been repeatedly tested in chess sections and consistently yielded positive effect – in a single winter season 5-7 amateurs from the group of 15-20 people would usually reach 3rd category. Unfortunately, it is not easy to find experienced teachers. However, even self-education can lead to quick and successful results, if only it follows a well-thought and rational plan.