by Steve Lopez

A good friend of mine has recently taken up a variant of the game Go-Moku. She's expressed surprise at her own abilities -- she's winning all of her games after losing the first two she played. I asked her about her approach to improvement and was impressed by her reply:

"I just used what I learned in the games I lost for the games that I won."

Bullseye. That, in a nutshell, is the quickest way to improve at any game of strategy. The trick to learning lessons from your losses is to figure out what the lessons are and then use that information in your later games. The lady in question is pretty brilliant to figure this stuff out on her own: most people need help to identify their mistakes and weaknesses -- most of us can't do it on our own. This is why we just spent two weeks of ETN learning how to use the analysis features in Fritz6. Having Fritz analyze games will show us exactly where we went wrong and where we need improvement. Bu how do we intrepret the data that Fritz gives us? This is what we'll examine in this week's ETN.

First, a caveat: you're going to hate this part of the process. Everyone wants a pat on the back. Nobody likes to be told that they've screwed up. I've seen a lot of complaints about Jeremy Silman's approach in the books The Amateur's Mind and How to Reassess Your Chess; some readers criticize Silman as being "too harsh" and "too demeaning". But that type of criticism against Silman is a bit short-sighted. You might feel like a jerk now when Silman ridicules a student's error and you realize that it's an error you commonly make, too, but that embittered feeling is the reason you're much less likely to make the same mistake later.

Working with Fritz is similar. It's great to have Fritz analyze your wins when it confirmes that "you da man". But you'll feel like a real horse's patootie the first time you have Fritz analyze one of your "brilliant" 60-move wins and it shows you that your opponent missed a mate-in-two that would have killed you at move 26. As I said, nobody likes criticsim and no one wants to dwell on their mistakes. But the honest truth is that you'll never get better at chess if you don't take a hard look at your losses and try to figure out what you're doing wrong. So the first step in this week's lesson is to swallow your pride. If you're not willing to have your ego bruised a bit and to do the hard work required to improve your game, you're wasting your time reading this week's column. Just load Fritz1 or EXChess, click on Handicap and Fun mode, set the Elo slider the whole way to the left, and revel in your victories. The rest of us will look very much forward to seeing you over the board down at the chess club.

Another caveat: Fritz is not a tutorial program per se. There is a pile of features in Fritz6 to help you improve your game, but there's no structured "step-by-step" tutorial to teach you tactics, strategy, endgames, etc. There are three key ingredients to chess improvement:

  1. Practice
  2. Analysis
  3. Study

No single piece of software will help you in all three areas. Fritz6 excels at the first two. For the third one, nothing beats good chess books or software training programs. The key here is to combine the three elements in an improvement regimen that gets you positive results.

"Practice" is easy. You play lots of games against human opponents or against Fritz6. That's the relatively painless part. Millions of people do this every day. Unfortunately (for them) they never move on to the next two steps and consequently never improve a lick. They just get stuck in a rut -- they'll be playing at the same level ten years from now that they're playing at today.

"Analysis" is where Fritz6 comes in. Few of us are as brilliant as my gifted friend who was able to study her own games and determine her mistakes and weaknesses. We need a strong player to tell us how we've screwed up. Fritz6 is that strong player.

"Study" is the toughest of the three ingredients. I'm referring to real study here. I'm not talking about buying a copy of Winning with the Alfred E. Newman Defense and memorizing a few lines from it. I'm referring to studying strategy, tactics, endgames (especially endgames) -- all the stuff that chessplayers traditionally hate to study. You study to (hopefully) correct your weaknesses, you go out and pay some more games, and you start the three-step process all over again.

The crucial link between analysis and study is what we've not yet examined. I've shown you how to play a game against Fritz. I've shown you how to get Fritz to analyze your games. I can't show you how to study. But I can show you what to look for in the games Fritz has analyzed so you'll know what to study.

Analyzing one game won't do the trick. Analyzing a dozen games won't do the trick. You'll need to have Fritz analyze at least 25 (and probably more) of your own games so that you'll know which aspects of your chess you should be trying to improve. So don't count on starting your new study program tomorrow. Allow Fritz a few weeks of nightly analysis (one game a night) to accumulate the information.

Most of us play more than one game at a sitting. We go to chess club and play four or five games in an evening. If you stay home and play games against Fritz, you can bang out even more than that. In determining what game you'll have Fritz analyze overnight, take a look at the games you played that day. Eliminate your wins -- looking at your wins won't help you as much as looking at your losses. Unless a draw was particularly hard-fought, skip those too. You'll need to pick one of your losses, preferably one in which you have no idea where you went wrong.

In looking at your losses, skip the short games (under 20 moves), unless that's all you have. If you're losing a ton of short games, you need to study general opening principles. You're either failing to develop your pieces, failing to control the center, or ignoring the safety of your own King. Have a look at a general opening book (Gauthier's ABCs of the Chess Openings CD from ChessBase, Seirawan's Winning Chess Openings, Mednis' How to Play Good Opening Moves, Horowitz' How to Win in the Chess Openings, or any one of about a zillion other basic chess books). Also, using the "Opening Reference" option in Fritz6's "Full analysis" mode may help you here.

In selecting a game for analysis, I try to pick a game in which I think I played fairly well but in which I'm not sure where I went wrong. If I hang a piece out of chess blindness or sheer stupidity, I don't bother having Fritz analyze the game. I already know where I went wrong; Fritz can't help me any further by analyzing the game. After you've played chess for a while, you can get fairly adept at spotting your mistakes during the game ("Dang! I shouldn't have pushed that pawn three moves ago -- it weakened c5 and now he has his Knight sitting there!"). The lost games in which I have no clue as to where I screwed up are my favorite candidates for analysis by Fritz.

"Blunder check" is also my preferred analysis mode because of the numerical evaluations it provides. I not only see where I played inferior moves but also exactly how inferior they were. This is important when trying to spot chronic recurring weaknesses in my play.

Let's delve into this a bit deeper. After you've had Fritz analyze a bunch of games, it's time to start going through them -- you're trying to spot patterns in your play. The first thing to look for is how you're losing; are you tossing games because of tactical deficiencies or positional ones? This is easier to determine than you may think. In going over your games, look at the numerical analyses provided by "blunder check". Let's have a look at blunder check's typical output:

We see that Fritz6 has evaluated the position after 9...Be7 as being 12/100ths of a pawn better for Black (the other number, -0.53, shows that Black would have been better by just over a half-pawn if Fritz' suggested improvement had been played). By going down through the gamescore and paying attention to the first numerical evaluation Fritz gives at each move (not the ones given after the suggested variation) we can follow the ebb and flow of the game.

You'll likely see a certain amount of give and take here. You make a move and your position is better by 10/100ths of a pawn. Your opponent makes a move and his position is better by 5/100ths of a pawn. You make the next move and you're up by 8/100ths of a pawn, etc. This give and take, back and forth along the 0.00 mark, is pretty common.

But then you'll come to a point at which it starts going badly for you. This is where you need to look carefully at the numbers. If you had a position in which you were up by 15/100ths of a pawn and you're suddenly behind by 70/100ths of a pawn (or more) after your opponent's next move, this is a clear signal -- your problem lies in the area of tactics. You missed the fact that your move provided your opponent with a tactical opportunity. Likewise you may have played a move in which your position is better by a quarter pawn, but Fritz provides you with an alternate variation in which you're ahead by 1.5 pawns. In this case, you missed a tactical shot of your own (and this is the point at which the numerical assesments given after the variations become significant).

In both cases, you're losing the game tactically -- a single or multi-move combination in which you're losing material (by missing your opponent's reply) or failing to win it (by overlooking tactical shots of your own). This tells you that you need to study tactics -- a book or disk on combinations is what the doctor prescribes.

But if you're looking at your games and you're seeing that your positions are slowly being whittled down little by little -- a tenth of a pawn here, 15/100ths of a pawn there, you're losing the game positionally. You're either making moves that weaken your position or missing the fact that your opponent is making strong positional moves and slowly crushing you like a python. This indicates that you need to study positional chess (chess strategy) -- pawn structures, piece placement, and planning.

However, many games aren't lost by strictly one means or the other. You might see a slow erosion of your position to a point where your opponent has a significant advantage (say 0.75 or 1.00 pawn), even though the material on the board is even. Then comes the tactical combination that destroys your game. This is because tactics often evolve out of strategy; one player gets a big positional advantage and then hits his opponent with the material-winning shot that effectively ends the game. In this case, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Study positional chess to remedy the deficiencies that allow your opponent to get that overwhelming position. If he can't build up a series of small advantages, he's less likely to find game-winning tactics (that is, without you making a significant blunder).

As you're probably already aware, a game of chess can be divided into three phases: the opening, the middlegame, and the endgame. Fritz can help you determine which phase of the game causes you the most trouble. This is pretty easy to spot. If you still have an even position well past the point at which the Queen and some other pieces have come off the board but are ultimately losing, you're blowing it in the endgame. Your endgame technique needs work. Now I fully realize that nearly everyone positively hates to study the endgame. I'm no exception. But I'll tell you a secret -- improving your endgame technique will improve your results very quickly. A few years ago, I latched on to a beginning endgame book. I never even finished it -- I just read the first few chapters on King and pawn endings and Rook and pawn endings. But I saw an immediate improvement in my results. I became a lot more comfortable in the endgame and started winning games that I otherwise would have lost. And much of the time I didn't even need to calculate; I would look at the board and immediately see that if I traded off a couple of pawns my opponent's King would be outside "the square" of my remaining pawn and I could just walk that bad boy up to the promotion square. Players that I'd formerly had a tough time beating were falling by the wayside. And I started to get some serious respect from those same people.

You don't even need a hefty endgame book to improve in this phase of the game. Fine's Basic Chess Endings is undoubtedly a great book, but it's a bit much for the average player. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of Horowitz' How to Win in the Chess Endings. Seirawan's latest book Winning Chess Endings is another good choice. Learn the basics first -- you have to crawl before you can walk.

Middlegames are a bit tougher and it goes back to what we were saying about the difference between strategy and tactics. If you're seeing a lot of middlegame losses (and I don't necessarily mean instant checkmates -- you can be two pawns down in the middlegame and still drag the game out into a dead lost ending. You need to see where in the game Fritz' evaluation radically changes -- if you're suddenly going down by 1.75 in the middlegame and it just gets worse from there, it doesn't matter if you drag the game out for 35 more moves; you lost it in the middlegame, no matter what the final move tally turns out to be), you need to figure out if the games are lost tactically or positionally and proceed from there.

Openings? Well, we covered that earlier. If you're losing a lot of games in the opening (in 20 moves or less), you need to learn basic opening principles. The exception to this occurs when you're doing all right in most openings but there are one or two specific openings that seem to give you trouble. In this case, you'll need to bone up on those openings or else rethink your choice of opening repertoire. In the former case, Fritz can help you a great deal, but we'll need to come back to that later.

It all boils down to this: study a lot of your losses and see if any patterns are present. Look for where in the game you're doing badly (opening, middlegame, or endgame) and look for how you're doing badly (the sudden tactical lightning bolt that ruins your day or the slow positional python-like crush that gradually does you in). Play through your old games, follow Fritz' analysis and suggestions, and take careful note of the where and how. This will tell you the area(s) of your game on which you need to concentrate your study.

It's that simple -- and that hard. I've discovered that it's not very tough for me to look at a group of games and see how I'm screwing up. The hard part is doing the grunt work -- cracking the books, firing up the training disks, and busting my brain to learn the things I don't know. Nobody can do that but me. Fritz can't put a gun to my head and force me to study; I have to do that on my own. I can buy all the books and software in the world, but my game will always suck unless I read them and use them.

If you buy a chess book, read it. If you buy a training CD, study it. You can sleep with them under your pillow, but the process of osmosis is bound to fail. If you need some motivation to study, just head down to your local chess club. Every club has a real jackass -- the guy who smirks and makes some belittling remark when he beats you , always loud enough so that the other players can hear. Go play a few games with him. I guarantee that you'll get motivated pretty quickly. It always serves to motivate me. Trust me on this next point -- revenge is highly underrrated. There's nothing in the world quite like seeing the smirk disappear from an arogant player's face when he realizes he's busted. That moment alone makes all of the hard work worthwhile.

However there's always the old cliche about how the journey is the reward. There's a lot of truth to this, too. The hard work one puts into improving one's game is in itself a major source of pride for many people. Forget the end results for a moment. Just adding another bit of chess knowledge to your mental arsenal can be a rewarding experience, even if you seldom have occasion to use it over the board.

Playing chess is a journey and Fritz6 can be your guide. In addition to pointing out specifically what you should have played at a given point in a game, Fritz will also show you in a more general sense where you need to concentrate your study time in order to improve your play. This article hopefully provided you with some useful tips on how to get Fritz started on pointing the way for you. And, lest you think that I'm suggesting that you absolutely must run out and buy a pile of chess books, there are some features and uses for Fritz that can directly help you with various aspects of your game. We'll look at those in next week's ETN. Until then, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments, suggestions, and analysis for Electronic T-Notes. If you love gambits and sacrificial play, stop by my Chess Kamikaze Home Page and the Yahoo Chess Kamikazes Club.