Saturday, April 23, 2016

Studying Chess

A friend of mine on Facebook asked this question:

"Is it better to work on one part of your game (say tactics) for a month and then move on or is better to work on tactics on Monday and endings on Tuesday for example?"

I don't claim to be a strong player but as a 2200 ish player, perhaps my opinion, or work regime might provide some ideas for others. One proviso: I have no ambition, so the work I do isn't designed to help me improve, but it maintains my level, roughly.

The simple answer to the question is that I do what I want, when I want, but the work I do is done totally by me. That is, I don't give up on puzzles, I don't guess, I don't use a computer engine. I break the work into 2 distinct types.

- analysis

- calculation

Analysis involves me looking at games, and trying to discover the truth about those games or just some positions. It can be any games, there's no shortage of them. Like the games from the recent Candidates tournament in Moscow were quite interesting at times, but I'm also looking at games from the famous Hastings 1895 tournament.

Thinking nostalgically, a big improvement in my game came in the early 1980's, after I worked through all the games from the 1981 Linares tournament. I had the bare game scores in a little booklet and just worked through the games. It was just 66 games, but I studied them over and over until I found things in the games that I hadn't seen before.

Here's a position from that tournament. It's white to move. White's in a good position, but what's the best way to proceed? I'm guessing that anyone looking at this position for the first time will be able to see a whole bunch of promising moves for white. Finding different plans and ideas, as many as you can is good. Try looking for moves, then black's best replies, seeing if you can come up with a line that you like. It doesn't have to be too deep. Take a break, and then look at it again and see if anything new appears. Do it as many times as you like, either trying to find new ideas, or seeing further down variations. I'll post the game, and some good ideas for white tomorrow.

As I said, I'm currently working through the games from Hastings 1895 and using some games and positions in my lessons. There are some amazing games, some wild positions, some crazy old openings, and some terrible blunders. The strategic considerations aren't as deep as games are now, but the calculation is at times excellent. I've seen most of the games before, but I still enjoy looking through them again and again, and find new things, a bit like someone reading a favourite book many times, or watching a favourite film loads of times.

This is from the game Schiffers-Chigorin that I've been showing kids this week. White had just played Bg5, and to block the diagonal to d8, black has just played ..f6.

The question is, what is white's best move? And just how many plausible options does white have?

Analysing games and interesting positions is unbelievably good for your chess. And looking through analysed games is also good. It teaches you to think of options, and to use your imagination. You have to think of most plausible, and less plausible options, and calculate those moves to see wheich is the best, and why your favourite option doesn't work, or whether it would have been better than the move the GM played. Of course, analysing your own games is important, but studying analysed game collections, and practising analysing GM games is obviously great practice for when you start analysing your own games.

There are other things that one can do to work on one's game. Solving tactical puzzles on a site like chesstempo, working on endgames or openings to improve your technical knowledge. I personally think that help from a strong player, or even employing a coach is good for this. (I'm not looking for clients here, but I'll keep trying to post material on this blog that might make people think)

The last thing. Do I stick to a program or just randomly work when I feel like it, doing whatever I want? Actually, I do more of the latter. I'm of the opinion that if you're looking at different positions, honing your analysis skills and trying to develop and extend your calculation skills, you're already doing more than most players are who are just ploughing through tactics and trying to learn openings in great depth. Sure, I do some tactical puzzles, and when I see a problem that interests me I can't help but try to solve it. And sure, I work a bit on openings, but not that much!

Most adults are hobby players, and as such, they should be playing and studying because they enjoy what they're doing. We all get afflicted by ambitions, and if this ever happens to you, I suggest investing in a coach for a bit (make it a good coach, and one that can work face to face rather than by online instruction; you might need to try out more than one coach before you find the right one for you). Otherwise, work at the game when you can, and if you don't feel like studying, then don't push yourself because you're meant to be enjoying this! Wait until you feel like it, and then start up again. If you play hard and work hard when you feel like it, your game will make jumps at those times. You may quickly plateau out, but it will be at a higher level than when you started.

And please remember! More knowledge won't help necessarily. The most important thing is to be able to put ideas into practice. Therefore, learning to analyse positions, and to calculate variations are the 2 most valuable skills a player can have. Adult club players should leave the latest theory on the Anti-Moscow Gambit to Masters, and promising juniors who have the chess memory to cope with these things.

This advice might not be right for everyone, but it is my view on the game and how an adult should approach it and I guess it explains the way I think about the game, study the game, and play the game.

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