Crafts-Hobbies Vivian | 05 Oct 2010 01:13 am

How to Become a Better Chess Player

I have played chess for 35 years now, but only in the last 8 years or so have I taken the game seriously enough that I could consider myself an avid student. By reading books, using chess software to analyze games, and by hiring a coach I have been able to raise my game to a reasonable level (about 1800 FIDE rating, about one class below “expert”, two below Master). Due to lack of time to commit to the game I did not pursue a higher rating, but I have gained a solid understanding of the path that must be walked in order to master the game. I still have much of the path to walk, but I do own the road map, so to speak.

Chess is broken down into various facets for the purpose of teaching and learning. Aside from the obvious necessity to learn how the pieces move, and the other rules of the game, chess lessons come in four basic subjects:

1. The opening. Sometimes this is simply common or “accepted” opening moves annotated for the purpose of memorizing, and sometimes it involves more principles than specific moves.

2. Tactics and combinations. This is how the pieces interact in the short term, and how one might take advantage of a weakness with a sacrifice, in order to gain a major advantage, or even an outright win. Checkmating falls into this category, except where it relates to the end game.

3. Strategy. This is the subject of long term objectives and how to obtain them. It can be sub-divided into two categories: piece placement and pawn structure.

4. End game. This is where the majority of the pieces are traded off and the emphasis turns to the attempt to promote a pawn to the last rank to gain a queen or another piece. The end game is often considered to have started when the King becomes a fighting piece.

Learning all of these subjects was an eye-opening experience, as I had no idea there was such a vast amount to learn. In fact, as I mentioned before there is still a lot left for me to work on! But I have always been a student of learning as well as a student of whatever subject I am studying, and I was left with a feeling that there was something missing from the process that could have made it easier, or perhaps more efficient.

My understanding of the chess learning process deepened when I started teaching a young fellow by the name of Tanraj Sohal. I learned as much by teaching him as he did, perhaps more so since he is a much more gifted player than I am. However, I had wisdom and experience on my side, and together we improved his game to the point that he won the Canadian Championship for his grade that year. To be fair, I should point out that he placed second the year before, when I was not coaching him, so I cannot take much credit for this. But I can say that I did learn a lot about learning chess!

More than learning how to make good moves, getting better at chess is about learning how to not make bad moves. You can play solid chess for 30 or 40 moves, and then make one bad move and lose the game. The quality of your other moves may not have made a difference in your game, but the bad move certainly does. To prevent these bad moves, we have to overcome weaknesses in understanding, and we need to learn them so well that we will recognize them when the situations arise in game play.

Memorizing, or even being able to explain something is not enough. There needs to be an “aha!” moment that forever changes the way you look at the game. I have experience this enough, and seen it happen in other players enough to know that this is an absolute requirement to deepening your understanding of the game.

There are two problems with this, though. First, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of “ahas” required to master the game. Second, they can be tough to achieve.

Why is this? Mostly because the average player has had most of his instruction from books. The “aha” factor occurs mostly with a combination of instruction and repetition. Books can certainly offer instruction, but if you have to set the board up all over again just to repeat a lesson, or even move on to the next one, how often are you really going to repeat it? I know from experience it is often too much work to do the first time!

E-books may be even harder, since most players will find it difficult to set up a board on a computer desk; plus, flipping between text and board diagrams is harder with a PDF file than with a physical book.

In recent years there have been many new chess programs, and these are great for repetition, but I have yet to see one that gives adequate explanation for anything other than the basic lessons.

More recently there has been an introduction of chess videos that can be downloaded and played on your computer. These are usually just videos of a board from a chess program that the instructor is using to play through the moves of whatever he is teaching. The beauty of the video lesson is that not only does it come with verbal instruction (much easier to follow while watching the board than reading), but it is easily repeated. There is so little effort required that repetition seems to happen naturally.

I recently purchased a chess video lesson package, and I was amazed at how many “aha” moments I had. I was able to approach the lesson with more anticipation than with any other method. By anticipation, I don’t mean eagerness; what I mean is that I was “seeing” the moves before they were played. Sometimes I was wrong, but the amount of times I was right told me that my game was already improving. Or, at the very least I was learning something new!

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