Thursday, June 5, 2014

How To Start Your Chess Training

There are many different types of chess players in the world, and there is a certain level of love for the game that is required if a truly high level of play is to be achieved. Although applicable to all players, this blog is geared toward the advanced player; 1500-1800 strength who is looking to improve their game to 2000 and beyond.
Through the trials of chess training it is not uncommon to plateau. No matter how much you play, your game simply goes nowhere. Some players read book after book, play countless hours and never improve. This is a topic of interest because it is probably the most experienced phenomena in chess, but it is almost never addressed.
What separates an advanced chess player from expert and master level play?
It is an interesting question, because the answer could be a lot and a little. If a player has outstanding tactical ability, but lacks other knowledge they could still play at a high level. That being said, a very strong player can play at a high level with almost intuition alone. A chess master is typically one who has acquired exceptional ability in all areas of the game. What separates an advanced chess player from a chess master is not just the level of their mental ability to calculate and understand a position, but more importantly the holes in their chess knowledge. The stronger a player becomes, the more important chess training is; more specifically study rather than playing.

Assessing Your Game

            A common question asked by a beginner to an advanced chess player is, how many moves do you calculate ahead? It’s always funny to see the confusion on their face when you answer, “ehh a few.” It has been said that grandmasters don’t necessarily play complicated chess, but rather they play good chess. The truth of the matter is that knowing what to focus your chess training on is more than half the battle on your road to improvement.

An advanced chess player by this point has most likely at least developed:
  • Solid opening fundamentals (development, castle early & often etc.)
  • Decent opening theory knowledge
  • Decent calculation and tactical abilities
  • At least basic positional understanding
  • Basic endgame theory knowledge (probably mostly king and pawn)
            The first thing any player should do is figure out what they don’t know. All areas of your game could undergo improvement until the end of time, so it is important to not only focus on one thing. An example of this is those who spend all their chess training focused on opening theory; constantly looking for better ways to approach their game. Another popular example would be those who almost skip endgame study all together. That which is measured improves, so do an evaluation of those mad skills of yours. There are lots of ways to do this, but a good way to start is by getting your hands on “Chess Exam and Training Guide” by Igor Khmelnitsky.
It’s not perfect but, pretty good. The reader is presented with chess positions and then asked to choose the best move from a selection of the statistically most played moves. Each position in the book was given to players of different rating strength; the most frequently chosen moves were used as an answer to choose from. After answering a problem, on the flip side of the page there is a description of each move, and of course the correct answer. The ratings that the book presents to you may or may not be accurate; however it is an outstanding book to show you where the holes in your game are. Be warned that this book will take a while to get through, but it is insightful, and will no doubt enhance your chess training. 

Developing A Chess Opening Repertoire

The importance of developing an opening repertoire is surprisingly many times overlooked. It is likely that a player of 1800 strength has developed some sense of an opening repertoire; however it is likely that it could benefit from some serious improvement. It’s nice to know a little about all openings, but in high level competition that’s just not good enough. It is important for a player to have advanced chess opening knowledge. Assuming we have no formal opening repertoire, how do we choose which openings to use? There are three main ways to do this:
  • Select your openings based on your personality. If you are an aggressive player then perhaps the Sicilian defense is yours all day long. If you’re much more of a positional player who likes to slowly take over your opponent, than maybe the French. If you are selecting openings based on your personality than a common strategy is to use similar structures. An example of this would be playing the Caro-Kann against e4, and the Slav against d4.
  • Another option is selecting openings based on how complex they are. Not all of us have 5 hours a day to study opening theory. If you play the open Sicilian, black could respond with the Najdorf, Dragon, Scheveningen, Kan, Sveshnikov, etc. However if you play the Closed Sicilian, than there is much less variation for you to be concerned with.
  • Finally, you could choose your openings based on the hard facts. Some openings have historically not performed as well. You can use a chess openings explorer to compare the statistics of each specific line. There are a few other sites with similar databases, but theirs is probably the best. Also you can compare chess opening statistics from a broader look, comparing major lines by name. Only take statistics so far. All players perform at different abilities. Maybe all the not so good Grandmasters used the poorly rated openings. You can compare the overall statistics with how a specific player performed using the system.
            After you have selected the proper opening repertoire to suit your needs how do you study? A very important aspect is that a player needs to understand the ideas behind their openings. In fact this is probably the largest factor separating basic and advanced chess opening understanding. What are the positional ideas behind those moves that you’re learning to regurgitate. Knowing this helps transition into the middlegame. There are many different ideas that people have tried and a lot could be said about this topic, however to keep it reasonably short let’s use some more bullets.
  • In my personal opinion, one of the most valuable programs in the chess world is “Chess Openings Wizard Professional.” If you want to learn opening theory fast and deep, than there is no substitute. (at least that I know of) They have opening files you can purchase, or you can create your own.
  • Reading books and watching videos over your openings is an excellent way to get in the minds of stronger players. is loaded with great videos over all kinds of stuff, but it does require a monthly subscription. There are many wonderful books out there written over chess openings, however in my experience the title hands down goes to the Grandmaster Repertoire Series. The only downfall is that they have only been written over a select few openings. The Sicilian, Caro-Kann, English and Gruenfeld are among those covered.
  • The method of chess opening study that I would recommend is to watch videos to get the feel for it. Then get ahold of a good book that goes into great detail over all of the main lines. Finally as your reading the book, import all of the moves into Chess Openings Wizard Professional. This allows you to have a board while working through the book; the whole time creating a phenomenal study guide. I personally don’t trust the calculation of others, so I always have the Fritz interface with Houdini as the engine running to go through variations. On the infinite analysis setting you can see previous calculations that others have done using various engines. This is an excellent tool if you are one who likes to create opening lines based on what the engine thinks. It is cloud based and always expanding, so in a way it’s almost like you are participating in expanding modern chess theory.

Chess Strategy And The Middlegame

In Chess the middlegame is the most complex of all three phases. In due diligence to not take away from the depth of the opening and endgame, it could be said that the middlegame requires more raw ability. You can call on your knowledge of opening and endgame theory, but here you put your abilities to the test. The most common lacking component in the average class player’s game is undoubtedly the art of planning. In fact this may be the single most important factor in separating class players from their goals of chess grandeur. 

The Extreme Importance of Planning

            Those who fail to plan, plan to fail; and planning in chess is positional understanding in practice. It has been said that a player could reach the 2000 level with chess tactics alone, but this must be taken with a grain of salt. Often many players think of planning in terms of calculating different variations. No doubt calculation is a huge part of chess strategy, but without knowing what to calculate it loses focus. The truth is that in good planning, calculation comes last, and often is not very deep at all. Think about how candidate moves are decided. When a player selects which moves to consider, where does this information come from? For most players this comes from intuition, based on positional understanding. There is no doubt that an advanced chess player has developed some ability to plan. That being said, when I was 1600 – 1800 strength I had horrible planning abilities. When a player focuses too much on calculation and not the overall plan of action they get stuck in little details and miss the big picture.

A great summary of planning chess strategy
has already been written online saying pretty much everything I could say on the subject.

Referenced readings in the article:
How to Reassess Your Chess – Jeremy Silman
The Amateurs Mind – Jeremy Silman
Planning – Neil McDonald

A few more good sources for developing your positional game:
Winning Pawn Structures – Alexander Baburin
Complete Chess Strategy II - Principles of Pawn Play and the Center – Ludek Pachma (if you can get past the old school notation)
Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy – John Watson (Sort of a follow up on My System)
The Art of Positional Play – Samuel Reshevsky

            So you have done your intense reading and you feel like a pro; now what? Reading is great but, you have to practice what you have learned. Obviously playing chess is a good way to work on your positional understanding, but aside from that there are two excellent training methods you can use.
  • Chess Mentor is an excellent piece of software you can use to practice chess strategy. It walks you through entire positions, explaining certain aspects as you select moves. It also will tell you why the move you selected was either right or wrong. There used to be a stand-alone version of Chess Mentor, but I think they did away with it.
  • The second method you can use is to go through Grandmaster games. As you go through the games take your time at each move and pretend you are the player behind the pieces. Consider positional ideas, and try to get in the head of the player who actually played the game. If you decided to play a move different than what was played, consider why the move was played instead of your alternative. An important note should be that it would be ideal to go through games of the opening systems you have chosen. At Chess Ebook they have a great tool in their "Play like a GM" section that provides a great way to practice this.
  • Another exercise you may want to consider is learning all of the Chess mating patterns. This is something that is often overlooked, but can be great when considering a plan of action

Chess Calculation

            In “The Extreme Importance of Chess Planning” section I said that the lack of being able to create solid plans may be the single most important factor separating class players from their goals of chess grandeur. A player’s ability to calculate different variations is an essential skill that separates the strong from the weak, however easier to develop than the art of planning. An important thing to note is that a players chess calculation abilities are a separate skill from their tactical ability. Most chess players don’t really have a method to their madness; they just kind of calculate variations that fit their probably half-baked plans.
            The super sad fact of calculation & tactics is that there is no awesome way to learn either one. Good chess calculation takes tons of practice, and good tactical ability comes with tons of exposure. Some class players do have strong tactical ability, however they are held back by other areas of the game. For most of us though, pulling out awesome tactical shots on our opponent does not exactly come easy. A lot of books on tactics discuss calculation, but it’s normally just a small section. Most of us just practice our calculation by solving problems or playing, however there are a couple methods you can use to aid in your training.
  • First, two excellent books on the topic are
Think like a Grandmaster – Alexander Kotov
Play like a Grandmaster – Alexander Kotov
  • Playing OTB games, but playing several moves behind. What makes chess calculation hard is not envisioning the pieces move, it’s holding a position that is not actually on the board in your mind. If you are considering a candidate move; you play through a few moves and very quickly several sub-variations must be considered. When you start a game you don’t make the first few moves. While keeping notation to check yourself, you are forced to visualize and calculate a position that is not on the board. This is a great exercise that forces you to visualize. The better you get the more moves you can push from behind.
  • Blind Chess is another great way to practice visualization, however I think it’s less effective than the first method. Although it is a great way to force yourself to visualize, there is one little problem. When you play blind Chess there are no pieces at all. When you are in a real game not only do you have to picture positions, but what you picture must be incorporated with what you are actually seeing on the board.

Chess Tactics

            I look at chess tactics kind of like graduating. When practicing tactics you are no doubt practicing your visualization and calculation abilities, but if you can’t do these well already than tactics are out of the question. An advanced Chess player should be well versed in chess tactics, and be ready for more advanced material. There is really only one way to practice tactics, and that is by becoming familiar with them.
  • As far as practicing chess tactics, Chess Tempo is about as good as it gets. You can do a bunch of random problems, or you can do a bunch of problems that have been categorized into different tactical motifs. If there are some motifs that you excel at, work on what you are not so good at. Practice is key; like an insane amount of it.
  • An alternative is an awesome program known as CT-ART 5.0. This program also separates problems into tactical motifs, but has a unique feature. In some ways I like CT-ART better than Chess Tempo due to, when you make a mistake the problems are broken down into similar, but less complicated versions. After you solve the miniature version, the original problem is presented again for you to make a second attempt.
  • Lastly, two good books to consider if you are looking to take it that much further.
Art of Attack In Chess – Vladimir Vukovic
How to Become a Deadly Chess Tactician – David LeMoir (
focuses a lot on sacrifice)

Gaining A Strong Endgame

Of the three phases of Chess, the endgame is neglected the most in training. It’s actually rather amazing how little about endings most players know. Being well versed in endgame theory is much more important than most players give it credit for. Not only is it just an important part of your game, but many times the endgame occurs with little time left on the clock. If you are faced with a king and pawn situation, how confident are you that you will play correctly? It’s likely that you understand:
  • Opposition
  • How to promote a pawn verse a lone king
  • That rook pawns are drawish
  • The pawn square
  • Etc.
However, how well do you understand:
  • Distant opposition
  • The Lucena Position
  • The Philidor Position
  • How to prevent from drawing with a queen and king vs king and pawn
  • How about how to play split pawns against a king without your king
  • Outflanking
  • Triangulation
  • How about rook and two pawns vs rook
  • How about rook endings in general. After all they are very common.
            The truth of the matter is that this list could be very large. If you have a solid endgame foundation, odds are that you will be able to turn potentially lost games into wins. A good strategy when playing chess is to play for the endgame. Many players destroy their pawn structures during the middlegame, and then lose it when the endgame comes. There is a lot that has to be considered when it comes to the endgame, but a large part of playing it comes down to what you know rather than what you can do.
  • It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of content that is available to learn, and probably the best reading to start with is:
Silman's Complete Endgame Course – Jeremy Silman
This is one of the few chess books that truly impressed me. Silman does a great job of presenting key information, and covering a vast majority of what a player needs to know.
  • Second after going through Silman’s book I would recommend:
Chess Endgame Training – Bernd Rosen

This book is kind of a recap on some things, but covers some good topics that are not covered in Silman’s book. At this point if you have gone through both of these books and really learned what they discussed, then you should possess a strong foundation. For those who really want to take it over the top I have three suggested readings:
  • Fundamental Chess Endings – Karsten Muller & Frank Lamprecht
  • Endgame Manual – Mark Dvoretsky (This book is meant for Chess master level players)
  • Secrets Of Rook Endings – John Nunn (This is an excellent book that discusses nearly every combination of rook endings)
            When it comes to practicing your hard core endgame ability there is really only one way I can suggest. Using a computer allows you to set up any position, and have an opponent that plays nearly perfect. Stick to different sections of study and replay different positions. You can add dynamic to your study by further randomizing things; instead of playing out a position ex: the Lucena position, play out the position again and again with a different placement of the pieces each time.
Finally this brings us to Bridging the Gap
            What I mean by bridging the gap is connecting your opening and endgame studies together. This is a little discussed topic, and the reason is probably because most players are not ready for such training. Once you have a solid opening repertoire and endgame it is time to start finding commonalities. What types of pawn structures are typical in one variation verses another? What types of strategies exist in each type of position? Once you have made all these connections, you can begin to decide if perhaps some of your opening variations are better than others. Already knowing what type of endgame you might be playing can significantly help your planning in the middlegame. Such an understanding is a strong weapon against all of your competition.

Suggested Reading List & Training Software

Good solid training software
Chessbase (I use the fritz interface, running Houdini)
Chess Openings Wizard Professional
CT-ART 5.0 – Chess Mentor – Play like a GM – Tactics Trainer – GM game review
Suggested reading list…some of the best books the chess world has to offer
Chess Exam and Training Guide – Igor Khmelnitsky
How to Reassess Your Chess – Jeremy Silman
The Grandmaster Repertoire Series – Various Authors
Think Like a Grandmaster – Alexander Kotov
Play Like a Grandmaster – Alexander Kotov

The Amateurs Mind  Jeremy Silman
Winning Pawn Structures – Alexander Baburin
Complete Chess Strategy II - Principles of Pawn Play and the Center – Ludek Pachma (
if you can get past the old school notation)
Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy – John Watson
(Sort of a follow up on “My System”)
The Art of Positional Play – Samuel Reshevsky

Planning  Neil McDonald
How to Become a Deadly Chess Tactician – David LeMoir
Art of Attack In Chess – Vladimir Vukovic
Silman's Complete Endgame Course – Jeremy Silman
Chess Endgame Training – Bernd Rosen
Fundamental Chess Endings – Karsten Muller & Frank Lamprecht
Endgame Manual – Mark Dvoretsky
Secrets Of Rook Endings – John Nunn
Typical Mistakes – Neil McDonald articles 

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