Thursday, August 25, 2011

Studying Master Games Quickly

I don't think there's any dispute that studying master games is productive for increasing one's chess knowledge. Typically, the most common way to do this is to study an annotated master game in a chess book or nowadays, watching a chess video or studying a game on the internet. However, I did something a little different tonight that I found to be helpful in my specific situation.

Basically, I found a specific opening variation I have been studying and searched my database for it. After putting in specific variables - I wanted to study how masters carried out their plans against lower rated competition - I came up with 22 games. I played through the games fairly quickly, about 2 minutes per game.

The first few games kinda flew by, but then I noticed something interesting. I saw several positions like the one below:

Here, White had just moved his knight to e6. In several of my own games, I always wondered whether I should prevent this and if not how I should handle the annoying pawn on e6 after capturing with the bishop.

After playing through 5-6 games with this, I started to get a feel for what Black could do in this situation. Nothing too general, as each position was slightly different (that was a lesson in itself), but realized that it was something that shouldn't be feared. Now perhaps studying a few more games like this more in detail will help strengthen this knowledge, but getting an overall view through seeing it in several games was very helpful.

By the way, this concept of playing through master games quickly and in high volume is not a new one. Jeremy Silman, Dan Heisman, and Ken Smith mention it as an effective training method. It may seem a little passive for some, but I think it has some benefits:

1. By doing it quickly and in fairly high volume, I think your mind makes connections between common themes and patterns. for example, if the same 5-6 games were studied weeks apart, the connections might be more difficult to make without specifically looking for it.

2. It is a great exercise for when you're too tired to do intense training. Attention is still needed, but it's a little lighter than playing a serious game, or playing through a deeply annotated master game. For example, I decided to do this tonight because I was too tired to study and felt it would be more productive than playing some relaxing blitz chess (I think I was right).

3. It is easy with access to online databases (I used and the ability to filter games according to position, material, player ratings, and results allows you to customize this exercise to your specific needs.

In any case, I do have a few opinions on how to best do this:

1. I would suggest you pick a specific theme for the games you will study. For example, games within a specific opening variation.

2. I think at least one player be a strong player. For example, as I play the King's Indian Defense as black, I made sure all of the players with the black pieces have a rating of at least 2400 (I went higher, but I couldn't find enough games so I lowered it to 2400). As I mentioned, I think your subconscious mind picks up things you may not be aware of, so I would rather pick up the types of moves a 2400+ player would make than say, the moves an 1800 player would make.

3. Although this is a little more relaxing, it is important to pay attention to the board and not have too many distractions while doing it.

Of course, feel free to experiment with different variables. Let me know how it goes if you choose to try this out or if you already do this.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


The following position demonstrates that besides building up my knowledge and skill in various areas such as openings, strategy, and endgame fundamentals, it is always paramount for every player to be wary of tactics, both offensively and defensively. I offer the following position as both a tactics problem for you and a painful reminder for me to always be careful.

I am playing black and made the horrible move 1...Nxh4?? This move took a slightly worse game and turned it into a losing game. Unfortunately, my opponent did not find the solution and lost the game. Can you? Check the comments for the answer.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Road Ahead

I have to admit, I was in kind of a chess funk the last week or so. Things have been busy with work and family (mostly in good ways), so instead of training and studying, I have been mainly playing games for relaxation (not a bad reason to play I might add). However, I did some reflecting on my ultimate goals with chess - namely, to master the game and enjoy the journey along they way, so here I'm going to share some of my thoughts in a semi-organized manner.

Building a foundation
One thing I feel I've been lacking in my overall plan is building (or perhaps completing) a foundation of chess study. If you think of chess like language, this would be the alphabet and words (how I view tactics and combinations), and basic sentence structure (how I view strategy. This also includes the basics of your topic sentences and main ideas (openings), body (middlegame), and conclusions (endgame). The idea is to write a masterpiece of literature or deliver a powerful speech, you need to know how the fundamentals. Enough with the language analogy, but I hope I made my point.

In my collection of about 40 chess books, I picked several that I plan to read (or in some cases reread) to build my foundation. The point to rereading is to get the material in my database for future review. Here are a few of them:
Modern Chess Strategy by Ludek Pachman
100 Endgames You Must Know by Jesus de la Villa
The Art of the Checkmate by Renaud and Kahn

This also includes a progressive set of game collections of annotated master games. I wanted to mention and credit excellent chess coach Dan Heisman's influence on me in this regard. Going back to my language analogy, think of studying master games as studying examples of excellent prose.

Besides the foundational chess content, another important aspect to my personal improvement program includes learning from my playing experiences...

Learning from experience

Socrates said, "the unexamined life is not worth living" and as such the unexamined game perhaps is not worth playing. I don't truly believe this, but I do think if one wants to improve, you need to learn from experience. This isn't a profound discovery, as many masters and common sense would lead you to this conclusion. Here are the types of things one can learn from studying one's play:
1. Chess content such as openings - not just specific lines, but the feel of the opening. Such as the difference between technically learning a swimming stroke and actually getting in the pool and doing it. Similarly, tactical motifs and endgame positions that show up in your games are great material for study.
2. Non-chess content - this might include how you calculate (or don't calculate), time management (or lack of), concentration, energy as well as other factors.

Again influenced by Dan Heisman's writings as well as my own experience, I'll be focusing on a few things when I look for games to play:
1. Focus on long games with some blitz sprinkled in. This would involve time controls greater than 60 0. Dan Heisman talks quite a bit about this in his excellent Novice Nook column at Chess Cafe. Basically, I think long games give you the most material to work with for improvement (chess and non-chess content), while short games give you the ability to play a bunch of games (getting practice with openings and tactical shots). Intermediate term games (such as 20 0) should be avoided generally as they don't quite give you enough time to use and test your thought process for deep thinking and also not short enough to get the benefit of volume.
2. Try to play as well as possible. Fairly self evident, but to use a weightlifting analogy, if you aren't lifting hard enough, you won't get better. Also, but trying as much as you can, you get a better picture of what you can and can't do, as well as eliminating excuses based on not putting in enough effort.
3. Play strong competition. Similar to point #2, but as a friend of mine said, "If you want to play better tennis, play better tennis players." Stronger players will test you and punish your mistakes, exposing your weaknesses so you can improve them.
4. Go into each game with specific goals (based on your needs). For example, if time trouble is an issue, you can go into a game with the goal of being aware of the time control during play. During and after each game, one can assess how they are doing on these goals. This process is called self-regulated learning, which basically means taking responsibility for your learning and going into each experience with objectives. You can learn more about this in Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin or by looking up Zimmerman (the most prominent researcher on this process) and Self-regulated learning on the internet.

The General Plan

So what I want to do over the next couple years is systematically go through my foundational books as well as play "good" games and study them (working to improve any weaknesses I find). Again, this is not necessarily a new idea (I won't be writing a book on my training methods), but a systematic program that I haven't really followed consistently.

There are a few other ongoing training and study tasks that I will be enjoying as I work through my material and study my games. These include the following:
1. Practicing basic chess tactics (mainly using Chess Tempo) on a daily basis.
2. Studying and enjoying master commentary of games on ICC and
3. Analyzing positions with friends or on my own as I have time for and find along the way.

Once I've completed this foundational work, I'll hopefully be much stronger than I am now and also be in a better place to determine where to build from the foundation. Immediate thoughts to that regard include more focused work on openings and more game analysis (instead of studying other people's analysis).

The Road Ahead

If I stay consistent, patient, and persistent in this plan, I believe I'll get pretty good. By laying out some of the basics (a few more details can be found in my training log), I find myself at peace with the road I've layed before me and I'm looking forward to travelling it. Perhaps I'll meet you along the way!