by Steve Lopez

One of the "driving forces" behind ETN is the batch of questions I get each week via phone and e-mail from ChessBase/Fritz users. For some odd reason, questions seem to "cluster", meaning that I'll get the same question repeatedly for many weeks, it'll go away, then it'll pop up for another extended period. One of these latest clusters goes something like, "I'm a beginning/intermediate chessplayer and I can't seem to improve. What's the best way to do this?" That's a fine question and I'm more than happy to tackle it in this issue of ETN.

This identical question was asked in an old issue of Chess Life (sometime in 1994 or 1995) in Larry Evans' column. The reason why it stood out for me at the time was because I was acquainted with the guy who'd asked it -- I'd once played him in a quad just outside Baltimore. I remembered the guy who'd written the letter (Darwyn Dave) quite well: he was a heck of a nice guy and we'd spent a fair amount of time conversing before and after our game together. The reason I remember Evans' answer is because it's the best chess advice I've ever read.

So in this ETN, I'll recount Larry's advice (which he at the time admitted that he'd also cribbed from another strong player -- that's the best part about good advice: it gets passed along over and over). I've reworked it and will add my own observations and modifications to it. My caveat is that I, too, am just an average club-level player -- but this advice has lifted me out of many a rut and has helped me a great deal; it's what took me from being a complete patzer to being a partial patzer.

Darwyn's original question (as best I recall, since I'm too lazy to go hunt for the specific Chess Life issue in which it appeared) was something like, "I'm presently a 1450 player and I don't seem to be improving. What should I do to reach the next plateau?" That's a danged good question and one which I've been asked pretty close to weekly for the last six months or so (in fact, I answered it two or three times last week). I always repeat Evans' advice; it's worked for me and many people have called/e-mailed me later to tell me that it's also worked for them. So here we go:

1) Study tactics

A fellow named Teichmann once said that "Chess is 99% tactics". He may have been overstating the case, but not by much. Understanding and being able to apply tactical principles will get you farther in your chess improvement than the study of any other phase of the game.

But I've talked to great heaping gobs of players who go about this study in the wrong way. I can't tell you how many people have said "I solve a hundred tactics problems a day" (and these people seem to have way too much time on their hands, by the way) and when I ask if it's helping their game there's something of a pause, followed by a sheepish "Not really".

Friends, it's better to solve a dozen tactics problems a day as long as you understand them than it is to solve scores or hundreds of problems. I think it's much more beneficial to do, say, a page or two out of Lazslo Polgar's mammoth book Chess or a dozen problems from George Renko's ChessBase CD Intensive Tactics Course, then it would be to try to do pages upon pages or screens upon screens of tactics problems. Heck, even one problem is good as long as you learn something from the experience. The reason I used those particular two examples is that the authors tend to group similar tactics problems together by theme; that is, you'll be solving four to eight problems that involve a common type of position (say, checkmating a King stranded in the center ofthe board) and you'll learn to recognize the pattern involved. See, that's the whole trick: an awful lot of tactical ability in chess is related to your ability to recognize patterns. You'll likely never see the identical position from a typical tactics problem in one of your own games, but you'll quite often see similar patterns, positions that are quite close to ones you've seen in the tactics exercises you've studied. That's the entire reason we study tactics problems: to become familiar with common patterns that occur frequently in chess games. You learn the patterns through repetition -- if you see them over and over, and learn the solutions, you'll likely spot and solve them in your own games.

Books that explain tactical themes verbally are also useful; unfortunately, a lot of the really good ones are out of print. Among the best are Yasser Seirawan's Winning Chess Tactics and Chernev & Reinfeld's Winning Chess: How to See Three Moves Ahead. They're both well worth getting if you can find them, as they explain the tactics (as well as giving you problems to solve) in terms that even beginners can easily understand.

2) Study endgames

Nothing, and I mean nothing, will make you feel like a complete pony's patoot quicker than being a piece up in the ending and still losing the game (and, yes, sadly, I've done this myself).

See, the problem with endgames is that you can't figure a lot of them out over the board -- you have to know endgame principles and techniques like the back of your hand to ensure that you can convert a material advantage into a win. The really cool part is that you don't have to know a ton of complicated esoteric stuff in order to play a decent endgame (although if you do, that's even better). Just knowing how to mate a lone King with a King and Queen or King and Rook, plus knowing the basics of King and pawn endings, will improve your game a great deal. That's why a lot of general chess books (especially older ones) start with discussions of the endgame.

The key to learning endgames (or anything else, for that matter) is to first admit to yourself that you don't know. Don't bypass a simple endgame book in favor of something like Batsford Chess Endings because you think you're beyond it -- chances are, you're not. Big fat complicated endgame books do have their uses (particularly if you're a correspondence player) but you'll get more mileage out of the simpler stuff. After reading just the King and pawn ending chapters from Horowitz' How to Win in the Chess Endings enabled me to recognize favorable endgame pawn structures, so much so that I was often able to look at a late middlegame position and determine if swapping off the remaining pieces would lead to a winning endgame for me -- and then I'd go on to win and leave my fellow players down at the club baffled at how I'd improved so quickly.

Then, once you've mastered the basics, you can build on this knowledge by getting into pawn and piece endings; the foundation you earlier laid gives you something to build upon in your later endgame studies (and this ultimately leads to even more wins for you). And some endgame knowledge can even help you turn apparent losses into draws -- I recall once being a Knight down in a tournament endgame and pocketing a half-point anyway because I knew how to neutralize the horsie's "advantage".

But start small, with someting like the Horowitz book I mentioned above, Seirawan's Winning Chess Endings, or the ChessBase CD ABCs of the Endgame; going back to basics will pay off later when you want to get into more complicated endgame study. Yes, I know that a lot of players find endgame study to be "boring", but it's the stuff we don't enjoy that's usually the stuff we need to work on most. And it will pay dividends in your chess results.

3) Study some positional chess

Some wag once opined that "Tactics are what you do when there's something to do; strategy is what you do when there's nothing to do". While this was undoubtedly meant to be funny, there's a lot of truth in that statement.

Evans says that every player needs a bit of positional knowledge, but that he doesn't need to beat it over the head. I take an approach that's more in the middleground, and I take it from experience: Ludek Pachman's book Modern Chess Strategy literally changed my chess "life". I read the book, learned to apply at least some of it, and my chess results improved dramatically.

We've all been here: you look at your position, you see no immediate tactics, no opposing weaknesses to key on, and you're stumped as to what to play, what to do next. This is where positional chess knowledge comes in handy. Understanding at least the basics of positional chess helps you know where your pieces should go, how to recognize opposing weaknesses, how to turn material imbalances to your advantage, how to formulate a plan. The really cool part about positional chess is that a lot of it revolves around easily remembered "rules of thumb", what computer chess geeks (like me) call "heuristics".

While Evans' point is well taken (tactics and endgames should take precedence over the study of strategy and positional chess, as least as far as the average club-level player is concerned), studying at least the rudiments of positional chess can have a profound effect on your game. Years ago, back when I was struggling greatly in my efforts to improve, I put in the time to study Pachman's book. Mid-book, I hit a stretch in my tournament career in which I won or drew seven straight games without a loss. I credit Pachman for a lot of that; I found it so much easier to devise valid plans in my games after learning the rudiments of positional chess.

If you don't know much about the subject, start with a primer like Bruce Pandolfini's Weapons of Chess, then move on to Yasser Seirawan's Winning Chess Strategy. If you already know the bare basics, I encourage you to read Pachman's Modern Chess Strategy and/or Eugene Bartashnikov's three CD series from ChessBase called Basic Principles of Chess Strategy. As a later option, you might also consider Angus McDonald's book Planning (which helps you learn to apply positional knowledge in formulating a plan).

4) Don't devote a lot of time to opening study

This is the single hardest thing for many chessplayers to unlearn. I've known or talked to literally scores of chessplayers who think they can buy a copy of an encyclopedic opening compendium like Nunn's Chess Openings, somehow memorize it (heh), and then become a killer over the board. These guys always come back, totally baffled, wondering why they're getting shelled repeatedly.

That answer's easy. Even if you could memorize every fifteen move variation from a huge opening encyclopedia (and you can't, by the way), your average club-level opponent is almost guaranteed to play something weird at move six or eight -- and your hours of memorization are wasted. The problem is that you can't figure out why his move "wasn't in the book" and waste time trying to "bust" it. Unfortunately, since you spent hours in rote memorization and not two seconds in learning opening principles, you can't figure out why his move was "bad". And even if you do somehow get to play a fifteen-move variation perfectly, it means bupkis if you don't understand the middlegame themes that arise from that opening -- sure, you now have a position in which you're slightly ahead (according to the book) but you'll still need to know how to maintain or increase that advantage in the middlegame (and encyclopedic opening books typically give you no information about that).

Evans says that players under 2000 shouldn't waste their time in memorization of opening variations, and I agree. What we do suggest is that you spend some time learning general principles that apply to all openings (the ChessBase CD ABCs of the Chess Opening and Seirawan's book Winning Chess Openings are particularly good for that) and, as you develop a repertoire of chess openings that you prefer, you should learn the basic ideas behind each of your preferred openings. After that, you can dive in and start learning some specific variations.

I've treated this topic extensively here in ETN (twice, in fact -- most recently in the nine-part series "Learning a New Opening" which appeared in the issues from February through April 2001), so I'll refer you to those articles for further information and some (hopefully) helpful tips, tricks, and techniques. However, I'll add here that you don't even need to go totally overboard in learning great heaping gobs of minutiae on ideas in specific variations and positions; just a general idea of the ideas in an opening will do nicely. Here's an example...

In the Ruy Lopez Exchange variation, the ideas for both sides are pretty clear-cut and easily defined. White will typically wind up with a 4-3 Kingside pawn majority (on the e- through h-files, while Black's are on the f- through h-files), while Black gets a 4-3 Queenside majority but with the liability of doubled c-pawns (so he can't force a passed pawn). Black's partial compensation revolves around the fact that he still has the Bishop pair. So what does this tell us? White will a) try to neutralize the Black Bishop pair by either capturing one of the Black Bishops or making Black block one behind some pawns; b) White should guard against his Kingside pawns being doubled or otherwise compromised; c) once he's achieved this, trade down hell-for-leather to get to the endgame, create a Kingside passed pawn, and go on to glorious victory. Black, meanwhile, wants to preserve his Bishops and keep them active, as well as find a way to screw up White's Kingside pawns.

All of that is pretty simple advice and merely knowing it (and trying to follow it) can help you a great deal in playing either side of this opening. Best of all, no endless hours of memorization were required. While it's true that you need to learn a few other tricks and principles in a handful of the variations (like the notorious Black h-file attack), that stuff is also easily learned as well, and again there's no need for hours of memorization of specific opening variations.

5) Play as much chess as you can

You can study chess for hours and days, and none of that study means bupkis unless you know how to apply that knowledge. The best way to test this is to play chess, simple as that. While "book learning" is important, many people also learn a lot from experience -- "life lessons" are often the best ones, although they're also frequently the hardest (one of my favorite sayings is that Life is a harsh teacher -- she gives the test first and the lesson afterwards).

Play a lot of chess. Play computers, play people. Play online, play offline. Primarily play against players stronger than yourself, but playing against weaker players can also provide helpful lessons in how to exploit weaknesses. Just play!

And that's pretty much where Larry Evans left off with his advice in Chess Life all those years ago. But I think some other important advice was left unsaid, so we'll hit my own suggestions next. These come from my personal experience (and a bit from the experience of others) -- Life is a harsh teacher after all...

6) If you spend money on teaching materials, use them!

You can't get better at chess by just throwing money at the problem -- that is, the process doesn't end at the point of purchase. If you buy a chess book, read it. If you buy a chess CD or a software program, use it. You can blow a ton of cash on books and CDs, but they won't do you a lick of good unless you utilize them. You could conceivably sleep with them under your pillow, but in the morning you'll discover that the process of osmosis didn't work (the knowledge didn't seep into your brain through the pillow overnight) and all you'll derive from the experience is a stiff neck.

7) Write down/record the moves to every game you play

Anytime you play a game against a person, write down your moves (assuming you're not playing blitz, of course). While this sometimes makes other players uncomfortable, tough -- you're doing it for you, not them. If you play online or against a computer program, save your games. If you play against a standalone computer, write down the moves. And this is not just an exercise in penmanship, either...

8) Go over your games afterwards, especially your losses

Take an unaided look at your games later and try to figure out for yourself where you went wrong. You can learn a lot by picking apart your games without assisitance, even if it's just to learn what you don't know.

9) Get help from stronger players

That includes both humans and computer programs. If you belong to a good chess club, there's often a helpful player or two who will look over your games with you if you ask nicely. Even if he's/she's not much stronger than yourself, that person can often present you with plans or ideas that you'd not thought of yourself (in every chess club I was ever a regular at, I always fell in with a small group of guys who acted like a "study group": we'd go over games together, give opinions, argue options, suggest books, come up with related games by others, all of which was helpful and vital, because it made me think. I also made some pretty good friends that way, too, which often carried over to areas outside of chess).

By all means, have a computer program analyze your games. It's an extensive topic and I wrote about it at length in several ETN issues: Parts Ten through Twelve of "A User's Guide to Fritz6", back in March 2000. Go back and review them, please -- the information is still valid for later versions of Fritz and our other playing programs -- and Part Twelve is particularly useful: it's my "manifesto" on understanding the learning process and how to make it work for you.

10) Play over the chess games of others

This is, at its core, exactly why you have ChessBase and the database functions of Fritz and our other playing programs. Play through games slowly (it's not an exercise in how fast you can work your mouse) and try to put yourself inside the players' heads -- ask yourself why they made the moves they made (this, in fact, is a technique I learned through my study of military history -- you can't fully understand a battle or campaign without first crawling into a commander's head and trying to determine what influenced his decisions). Play through games slowly; this isn't an exercise in how fast you can work your mouse or shuffle the pieces on a chessboard. Understanding is the key goal here, and even if you don't fully understand a game, you've spent your time well if you come away from the game with just a small bit of chess knowledge that you didn't have before or even some unanswered questions that spur you to do some more chess study.

And speaking of how you spend your time...

11) Don't kick yourself when you lose

You're gonna lose sometimes. We all do. It's not exactly an occasion for celebration, but it's not the cue for you to break out the hair shirt, sackcloth, and ashes either. Losing sucks when compared to the alternative, 'tis true, but I look at losing as an opportunity (in life as well as in chess) -- I can take my loss and learn from it. I can learn more about chess by dissecting my mistakes and, sometimes, with luck, I can even learn a lot about myself. You screw up, take your lumps, learn from the experience, and become stronger.

Kicking yourself wastes time. I'm not talking about those first few moments of disappointment after you get mated or realize that you have to tip your King -- everyone feels that to greater or lesser degrees (fortunately "lesser" in my case, otherwise I'd not be able to poke fun at myself as I often do in these articles and my other chess writing). I'm talking about depressions, blowups, self-loathing. It's a game, for crying out loud, but it's one from which you have every chance to maximize the positive benefits (see my comment about learning about oneself above) while minimizing the negative ones. If you blow up publicly or berate your opponent after a loss, you only make yourself look like a jerk. If you spend hours or days secretly kicking/hating yourself after a loss, you are further hurting yourself by wasting time which would be better spent in analyzing your errors and learning from them.

In chess, just as in life, we have the opportunity to either learn from our mistakes or be crushed by them. The choice is ultimately ours. The power to "turn a disadvantage into an advantage" (as an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation so eloquently put it) is ultimately in your hands.

Any maybe, just maybe, that's really what "improvement for the average player" is really all about -- off the chessboard as well as on it.

Until next week, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments, suggestions, and analysis for Electronic T-Notes.