By now, most of the chess world is familiar with the story of Max Deutsch, so I will keep it brief. Max is a 24-year-old chess amateur who wanted to beat World Champion Magnus Carlsen with a month’s worth of practice. No handicaps.
Max completed 11 other learning challenges, one each month. Perhaps the most impressive one was to learn Hebrew up to a conversational level in just a month. His success attracted large levels of attention, and his last challenge was upgraded from beating the top level of a chess app, to beating the man himself.
If one can learn a new language in a month, why is it that the game we love so much is so difficult to master? I spent over a year reading scientific journals about learning chess asking this very question. I also happen to speak five languages. I would love to share some valuable insights from cognitive neuroscience with you.
Learning a Language
Learning a new language is no easy feat. It requires hard work, motivation and daily practice. It is so tough that neuroscientists have shown that if you do not hear the sounds of some languages during your baby years, you may never acquire them up to a native’s standard. Could this be why many countries of the world remain primarily monolingual?
If you do however make the effort, learning a new language has pronounced effects on your brain. Neuroimaging has shown growth in the brain areas of the hippocampus and superior temporal gyrus. Your brain changes as you learn a new language. Like a muscle, it gets bigger and better.
Once you have acquired a new language, you will have to use it. When you speak it, you will use the left inferior frontal gyrus (Broca’s area) for the motor act of speech. You might also tap into the hippocampus for vocabulary. Your superior temporal gyrus will mediate these functions and help you form sentences rich with meaning.
Learning a Language vs. Learning Chess Okay, so learning a language is no easy feat, but doable. So why is chess so much harder? The answer is simpler than you might think. While speaking a new language taps into a few skills, chess requires a much wider variety of skills to come together in perfect sync. Like the difference between the sound of an instrument, and that of an orchestra. Chess needs the orchestra. Let’s look at some of the skills that you will need on your path to mastery:
Learning Chess: Visualisation & Calculation
When we calculate a few moves ahead, we need to visualise chess positions. The visual cortex part of your brain is hard at work. Your mind’s eye recreates what your eyes would otherwise do for you. Have you tried playing a game of blindfold chess? It is tough, but it is a required skill. Most masters can do this.
The better you are at visualising, the easier it will be to do everything else. This is because the cognitive load caused by calculation will not be as high, freeing up valuable brain resources for other tasks such as evaluating positions, strategising, etc. This is why famous chess psychologist De Groot noted that strong players no longer see the pieces on the board, but rather the lines of force and pressure that the pieces are exerting on the squares.
Learning Chess: Decision Making
Once you have calculated a few lines, it is time to make a decision. Will you play a prophylactic move or an aggressive move? Will you open the position up and go for the tactical line or play the solid positional line? So many options, so little time! Neuroscientists stipulate that areas like the anterior cingulate cortex, amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, among others, have important roles during decision making. Not much overlap with the brain areas required for visualisation, right? This is a skill in its own right.
Learning Chess: Impulse Control
Grandmaster Alexander Kotov noted that one of the fundamental differences between amateurs and masters is their discipline in thought processes. Do you always look at all you candidate moves? Do you always perform a blunder check? Do you always maintain a disciplined thinking process? Chances are that you do not. This is because this is an entirely separate skill set relying on different parts of your brain.
It is well known by neuroscientists that development of the brain area responsible for impulse control is not normally completed until at least the mid-20s. This is why they have the metaphor, “teenagers are all gas and no brakes”. Their prefrontal cortex is simply not developed enough, and in chess like in life, they might impulsively go for an action (or a variation) without completing their calculations. Of course, it is not only about teenagers, and once fully developed, there may yet be training to do to ensure we are all operating at the best of our abilities.
Learning Chess: Pattern Recognition
Pattern recognition is everywhere in chess, from tactical motifs and common combinations to typical plans and strategies. The more you play, the more your brain builds up its pattern recognition system. A fascinating finding from neuroscience is that your brain starts using the fusiform face area (FFA) to store chess positions! This is the part of the brain usually responsible for human face recognition. How can you tell your mom from a stranger? The FFA is hard at work. In expert chess players, this area doubles as a face recognition system for chess positions. Yet another skill to train up.
I hope that in this short(ish) article I have shown how learning chess and playing it well, is an infinitely more complex challenge than learning a new language. It is why some stipulate it may take up to 10 years of practice to attain master status. It is not by chance that many of us have fallen in love with this beautiful game, as what could be sweeter than to master one of the hardest human activities known to us? A game so infinite in possibilities that it is said there are more different chess positions than atoms in the universe.
In my work for Chessable, I am working hard to continue to develop tools that may help us tone down the training required to the tune of a few years instead of 10. This is why we are bringing print chess books to interactive life. Other than our work, technology has generally been improving learning for us anyway. This is perhaps why modern-day grandmasters are getting younger and younger.
I believe this trend of faster learning will definitely continue. It is also 100% possible to pick up the basics of chess and get playing within a few hours. It is also within the realms of achievable to increase your ELO by a very respectable level with a month of practice. However, beating the World Champion? I don’t think so. Unless we get the technology from The Matrix, it is unlikely this will happen in our lifetimes, if ever.
For those of us who practice chess daily though, and with technology constantly improving, the day of your Master status may be closer than you think. Good luck and I wish you success on your journey for improvement.
What are the best chess books ever written? We asked ten titled players this question and this article will share their answers. Because of the open-ended nature of the question, we received an interesting variety of responses.
Let’s jump right into the books and see what the masters had to say about them.
Chess books have been around for a long time. Although the quality of the books vary as they do in any genre, there have been a few that have endured through the years and prove to be both educational and entertaining for those who study them. The books in this section fit into this category.
The books are listed in alphabetical order. I have put the player who nominated each book in parentheses after each title.
Chess Fundamentals by Jose Raul Capablanca (GM Nigel Davies)
How to Think like a Grandmaster and Play Like a Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov (IM Levon Altounian)
Ideas Behind the Chess Openings by Reuben Fine (GM Nigel Davies)
Lasker’s Manual of Chess by Emanual Lasker (GM Nigel Davies)
My System by Aaron Nimzowitsch (FM Daniel Barrish)
These books illustrated many concepts devoid of some of the complexity of modern chess brought about by decades of theory and computer analysis. This makes them ideal material for instructive purposes.
For example, commenting on Chess Fundamentals:
“One of the most lucid explanations of certain aspects of chess strategy.”
~GM Nigel Davies
Besides the clarity of instruction in these books, these were the pioneers of chess strategy as we know it. Books like My System by Nimzowitsch explained and built upon strategic concepts that were in their early stages of development and refinement. The fact that these concepts are still valid today are proof of the value of these books.
FM Daniel Barrish was influenced greatly by Nimzowitsch. In his recommendation of My System, Mr. Barrish writes: “A common choice – one of the first books I read and probably the most influential. It’s a classic that was revolutionary at the time and which defines and explains basic positional principles in a lucid manner.”
Similarly, IM Levon Altounian had high praise for the works of Alexander Kotov: “Likely the first book ever written that deals with finding candidate moves, dealing with psychological mistakes, time management and multi-level plan creation. All written in a very easy to understand way thanks to Kotov being a part time reporter at his time.”
These chess books have been the foundation for generations of chess players and I suspect will continue to be so for those wise enough to mine the treasures within these works.
Quests for Improvement
Our next selection of books features books that are reflections from players’ attempts to improve their play. I think these books hold a special place in the hearts of players because they often relate to our own attempts to get better at the royal game.
Amateur to IM by Jonathon Hawkins (IM John Bartholomew)
Lessons with a Grandmaster by Boris Gulko and Joel Sneed (GM Rafael Leitão)
The Seven Deadly Chess Sins by Jonathon Rowson (GM Alex Colovic and IM John Bartholomew)
With The Seven Deadly Chess Sins, Rowson investigates in a fascinating way why players lose games. As IM John Bartholomew notes, “GM Jonathan Rowson delves in to the psychological side of chess. Fascinating.”
Moments of empathy and understanding between author and reader occur often, as these players share their own struggles along with their triumphs as they ascend the chess ladder. For example, referring to Amateur to IM:
“Engrossing, honest read. IM Hawkins describes his path to becoming a strong player. Interestingly, the vast majority of the book is on endgames.”
~IM John Bartholemew
In Lessons with a Grandmaster, the co-authors share the relationship of teacher and student, as the grandmaster, Boris Gulko, instructs his student, Dr. Sneed, through deeply annotated games where student questions master. The effectiveness of this approach is the reason for its appeal to GM Rafael Leitão: “Brilliant idea for a book. Extremely helpful to understand chess better.”
Biographical Game Collections
Chess is about the personalities of its great players as well as about the positions and moves on the board. The following books were chosen I think not only because of the great games and commentary from some of the greatest players ever, but also because of the fascinating (and in one case tragic) lives that these players led. The fact that chess has produced so many interesting figures explains in part the size of this particular list.
Baloven Kaissi (in Russian) by Max Euwe and Lodewijk Prins (GM Alex Colovic)
Chess Duels by Yasser Seirawan (IM Christof Sielecki)
My 60 Memorable Games by Bobby Fischer (GM Alex Colovic)
My Best Games by Anatoly Karpov (IM Levon Altounian)
My Great Predecessors (series) by Garry Kasparov (GM Rafael Leitão and IM Christof Sielecki)
My Life and Games by Mikhail Tal (IM Levon Altounian, IM John Bartholemew, and IM Christof Sielecki)
My Life, Games, and Compositions by Pal Benko and Jeremy Silman (WGM Jennifer Shahade)
Being able to grasp the inner workings and mind of one of the greatest players ever is something we as mere chess mortals would love to do. Several of these books, such as Baloven Kaissi do just that.
“An incredible outlook on Capablanca’s games and career with psychological insights from the authors who knew the man personally.”
~GM Alex Colovic
Some of these insights come from the minds of the players themselves, such as Tal’s beloved classic My Life and Games, Yasser Seirawan’s Chess Duals,and Pal Benko’s My Life, Games, and Compositions. Besides some brilliant chess, our panel noted how interesting and entertaining these books were.
“Great games, wonderfully written, just a joy to read and browse through.”
~IM Christof Sielecki
Others, such as Kasparov’s epic series My Great Predecessors, share the knowledge and insights of legendary players from a unique perspective. GM Rafael Leitão describes it well: “The best player ever analyzing games by former world champions. Can’t get much better than that.”
We are very fortunate as chess players and fans to have these works by some of the greatest to play the game.
Our final section of this survey contain books that are written for strong players.
Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual by Mark Dvoretsky (WGM Jennifer Shahade)
Endgame Strategy by Mikhail Shereshevsky (FM Daniel Barrish)
Grandmaster Preparation series by Jacob Aagaard (FM Daniel Barrish and FM Nate Solon)
School of Future Champions series by Mark Dvoretsky (IM Greg Shahade)
School of Chess Excellence series by Mark Dvoretsky (GM Rafael Leitão)
Secrets of Chess Tactics by Mark Dvoretsky (WGM Jennifer Shahade)
From the feedback from my respondents, there are two aspects that make these books great. First, the authors carefully selected appropriate material to challenge their readers. The second is the ability to communicate the most important points to be understood and applied. The books on this list embody these qualities.
An observant reader might notice that one author dominates this list. International Master Mark Dvoretsky (who passed away in 2016) was regarded as one of the best chess trainers by many high level players. His selection of training material was one of the strengths of his works. For example, IM Greg Shahade (referring to volume one of the School of Future Champions): “I just love this book, lots of great examples and awesome chapters.”
For WGM Jennifer Shahade, there is an emotional connection to Mr. Dvoretsky’s work, as she shared that she had “fond memories” of Dvoretsky’s Secrets of Chess Tactics. Part of this connection arises from the feelings of confidence and joy from correctly solving the exercises of the author’s solutions.
For some, Dvoretsky’s books were extremely influential:
“I studied the early versions of these books (they were published in the beginning of the nineties). They changed the way I saw chess.”
~GM Rafael Leitão
In addition to Mr. Dvoretsky’s books, a couple of our respondents spoke highly of GM Jacob Aagaard’s Grandmaster Preparation series. Aagaard’s books are newer and combine the two key characteristics of selection of material and eloquent communication.
For example, FM Nathan Solon commented on Grandmaster Preparation: Positional Play: “The biggest thing that’s impressed me about the Aagaard book is the number of good examples he’s assembled. One thing I’ve noticed doing lessons is, in general, the less I’m talking, the better. It’s all about the student getting experience. So I think Aagaard’s approach of short but helpful explanations, followed by a lot of exercises, is a good way to go. When I do the exercises I really feel like my chess brain is growing.”
Although many of the other books on our lists above were meant for chess players of all levels, there is a need for training material and instruction for players who have at some level mastered the game. Fortunately, we have both the legacy of the legendary Mark Dvoretsky and newer training works from Jacob Aagaard and others.
Before concluding this article, I wanted to extend my gratitude for the generous participation of the following chess masters:
Chess players love chess books. It’s part of the culture of chess to read books. Fortunately, there is no shortage of chess books for us to read!
What makes a great chess book? I think from our lists of the best chess books (in our opinion) there are several conclusions we can make.
First, the books contain some great chess! Whether it be the games of world champions or instructive positions in a specific phase of the game, the beauty and truth of chess is on display first and foremost.
Second, some of the best books tell a story. It could be the story of a player’s journey as in Tal’s My Life and Games. It could be the story of the evolution of chess as in Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors series.
Finally, many of the books inspire and teach. You could be a beginner studying the early champions such as Lasker or Capablanca or a master delving into one of Dvoretsky’s training manuals. Either way, the games, positions, and words within these works both evoke your own desire to improve as well as showing you the method by which you can.
Indeed, reading the books are often as enjoyable as playing the game itself!
What do you think is the best chess book ever written?
Has our panel of chess masters missed any of your favorite books?
This is a question we all ask ourselves at one point or another. It’s the reason why I read all the science there is on Chess and started Chessable! Recently, I got news that one of our users made some remarkable improvement, 300 over the board points in one single year. I got in touch with him to find out a bit more about it. GermanMC is not only one of our power users, but he has also made his opening repertoires available on Chessable for anyone to use. Some are free, and some, cost a few dollars. His top book is on the Ruy Lopez, it’s free and has been studied by an impressive 1,238 people! He has learned 764 variations with a modest maximum daily streak of 9 (there are some who have kept a streak for over a year).
I’ve tried to keep the questions similar to previous chess improvement interviews so as to stick to a familiar theme. Now, let’s find out a few more insights on how to improve at chess, here we go!
1) You have improved around 300 USCF points in a year of tournament chess since joining Chessable, that’s impressive, how do you feel?
Improvement is very satisfying of course, but it also makes me feel hungry for more knowledge and improvement. It’s really nice to live in an age abundant with brilliant resources like Chessable; all I have to do is open up my laptop and get to work.
2) A lot of work must have gone into this, and your game must have improved all around for such a brilliant change. Let’s break it down, how have you improved your chess openings? Over this past year, I have become much more familiar with the typical plans in my openings as well as the “theory” moves. I often understand how to handle the positions that I get out of the opening better than my opponents, which has allowed me to win many easy games against strong players. Chessable has been a key contributor to this aspect of my game because so many of the available repertoire books contain very high-quality instruction and allow me to easily review lines
3) Which openings do you play (if you don’t mind sharing!)?
My style has changed a lot over this past year as I have become a stronger player. As Black, I like to play the Najdorf against 1.e4 and the Benko Gambit against 1.d4 because I always seem to get fighting positions that are interesting to play. As White, I enjoy playing 1.d4 and going for Catalan-type structures with a later Kingside-fianchetto (spoiler alert – this will be the topic of my next Chessable book).
4) How have you improved your middle game?
The middlegame is probably the most critical stage of the game because it is where most games are decided at the amateur level. I personally have improved my middlegame significantly by obtaining a better understanding of the plans out of my favorite openings, as I mentioned earlier. Working daily with an online tactics trainer has also improved my middlegame play a lot. Other than that, I recently got started with Jeremy Silman’s How to Reassess Your Chess, which I find to be a very enjoyable read.
5) What about your endgame, have you worked on that at all?
I have to admit that I have slacked off a bit in my endgame study, but I have taken the time to learn a few basic king and pawn endgames as well as some rook endgames. John Bartholomew has some great videos on his Youtube channel about various essential endgames that I find very instructive!
6) You gained over 1,000,000 points on Chessable, that’s pretty impressive. What would be your tips to new Chessable users about how to get the most out of the platform?
My biggest tip to new users would be to develop a “Chessable routine.” To get the most out of the platform, it is important to do smaller (but daily!) review sessions rather than reviewing a very large quantity of lines every few weeks.
7) What would you personally like to see improved on Chessable?
I think the user interface could be improved a bit, but it seems to be getting better almost every time I log on!
8) What’s next for you? Any new goals? I have my eyes set on 2200, which is when the National Master title is given here in the United States. It would be great to reach that goal sometime in 2018. I would also love to play in some international tournaments when I happen to be in Europe so that I can increase my FIDE rating, but that’s more of a long-term goal.
Thanks GermanMC! It’s very inspiring and motivating to hear of your chess improvement. I am sure many of our readers, including myself, will take a tip or two away from your experience and apply it to our own game. Best of luck on the road to 2,200 and see you on the leaderboards! Personally, I am aiming for 2,000 FIDE this year, which right now, seems a long way away, a long way away!
So, how to improve your chess? In summary, it involves a lot work (1,000,000 points don’t come easy!), habitual study, and a balance between knowing chess openings and understanding the middle game concepts that are relevant to that chess theory.
A bit more about GermanMC: GermanMC is a chess player who is also a student in Austin, Texas. His nickname stems from the fact that he grew up in Munich, Germany. His passion for chess has been highlighted in recent months as he reached his age-groups Top 100 List for the USCF after improving 300 rating points in one year. He spends his free time playing chess tournaments, solving tactics, reading chess books, and of course, creating Chessable chess books.
When I first started playing chess, I had a very narrow view of strategy. In my mind, I was either attacking my opponent’s king or he was attacking mine. This strategy worked fairly well among my friends.
However, there were times when my “Attack or Defend” strategy would not quite work. The position didn’t offer either of us a clear way to attack. Eventually, I discovered that if I was very careful, I would often be able to win material via a tactical shot or more likely, left a piece en prise (undefended) for me to scoop up.
Eventually, that stopped working as well as my opposition got better and better. Eventually, I found myself on the defending side of my “Attack or Defend” method a little too often.
What I realize now that my opponents had started to explore the deep ocean of chess strategy, while I was just paddling around in my little pond in my back yard. Now, as I teach beginning players as well as playing against my children as they begin to learn chess, I see that they are often swimming in the same pond in the beginning.
In this article, I want to give beginning and novice players (and perhaps some intermediate players) a glimpse of the vast ocean of chess strategy. It can be quite beautiful, but also scary for the uninitiated.
Strategy versus Tactics
It is important to understand the difference between tactics and strategy. We can consider tactics to be forced sequence of moves that lead to a specific objective – usually (but not always) a gain in material.
Consider the position below (from one of my recent games against National Master Barry Davis). In this particular game, White won material by force – I could not avoid it. This is tactics.
On the other hand, strategy involves longer term plans and maneuvers. As we shall see in the following games, the moves in these games are not forced by an immediate threat against the opposing king or massive loss of material.
Tactics and strategy exist together. Typically, tactics serve the long-term strategy involved in a particular position. However, at times, if one side makes a big enough tactical mistake, finding it is more important than any strategic elements available in the position.
To put it another way, although beginning players often miss tactics – or fall prey to tactics – I think one reason they do so is because they don’t have a plan or a strategy in the first place. Hopefully, this article will give you a few ideas to work with.
With all of this in mind, let’s look at a few strategies with examples.
Creating and Attacking Weaknesses
One of the fundamental strategies in chess is attacking weaknesses. Often, this comes in the form of a weak pawn. Sometimes, your opponent creates these weaknesses by advancing a pawn or recapturing after an exchange. Strong players don’t wait for their opponents…they look for opportunities to create weaknesses.
How is this done? As we will see in the following two examples, it is often done using one of your own pawns to attack the pawn formation of your opponent. Whether your opponent tries to stop this or allows the pawns to be traded, what results is usually a backward pawn or an isolated pawn – both of which are often subject to attack. One thing to remember, which we will see in both of our examples, is that sometimes defending one weakness exposes other weaknesses. When this happens, you can often shift the target of your attack to win.
The minority attack is an important attacking formation to learn. Although this article won’t go in depth on the minority attack, the following game demonstrates the its potential. As mentioned, White’s pressure on c6 eventually leads to targets all over the board.
In the next example the legendary Viktor Korchnoi creates a weak pawn for his opponent. Although his opponent tries to counterattack actively, Korchnoi finds an opportunity to transform his positional advantage into a king hunt.
Remember the following about creating weaknesses:
ABC-W’s (Always Be Creating Weaknesses for your opponent). Actively look for opportunities, particularly when your opponent provides a “hook” (by advancing a pawn).
Remember that weaknesses often gives the owner of the weakness some compensation. For example, an isolated pawn has two open (or half-open) files next to it that the owner can take advantage of.
Pawn weaknesses are important, but always look for other opportunities that may arise when your opponent defends the weakness.
Using Files and Diagonals
Our pieces need a path to get to where they need to go. Often, our opening sequences will lead to specific files and diagonals being of specific importance. For example, the early …c5 thrust in the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5) will often lead to a half-open c-file upon which a lot of Black’s chances rely. Openings such as the Reti which creates a fianchetto of its king’s bishop (after initial moves Nf3, g3, and an eventual Bg2) often depend on using that long diagonal for its purposes.
As with creating weaknesses, we can wait for them to happen, or we can take the effort and forethought to create open lines for our pieces.
In our first example, the 3rd World Champion Alexander Alekhine takes control of the long diagonal a8-h1. Not only does he take control of it, nearly every move he makes contributes to keeping control and eventually using it to attack his opponent’s king.
In our next game, we see Hungarian grandmaster Istvan Csom create an open file using the h-pawn and then systematically and patiently puts his major pieces on it. His opponent, who controls the a-file himself, is diverted away to protect other weaknesses. Csom then takes control of that file as well and using both the a-file and h-files for his major pieces, winning a beautiful game.
Here are some tips for creating and controlling open lines:
Try to look ahead and see where a potential file and diagonal might get opened (if not open already).
Get their first with your rooks (for open files) or bishops (for diagonals).
Consider whether it is better to trade off your opponent’s pieces that contest the line or whether you should hold your ground and let them initiate the trades.
Avoid opening lines if you think your opponent is in a better position to take advantage of it.
Creating and Protecting Outposts
The final beginner chess strategy we’re going to cover today is the creation of an outpost for your knights. Although bishops can also use outposts, knights in particular need them to be effective. Why? Simply because bishops, rooks, and the queen have long-range mobility and can strike from afar.
Knights are very powerful also, as they can leap over obstacles. Their unique movement also can also catch opponents in deadly forks.
What is an outpost? An outpost is a square often (but now always) supported by a pawn that cannot be attacked by opposing pawns. The best outposts are on the 4th, 5th, and 6th ranks. Also, central outposts are often very powerful. Of course, an outpost is a good one if it is where the action is.
In our first example, Grandmaster Judit Polgar demonstrates the creation of an outpost on d5. Her knight quickly occupies it and from that jumping off point she exchanges it to simplify into a winning endgame.
In that particular game, Polgar forced her opponent to isolate his d-pawn, which shows us that the square in front of isolated pawns are good outpost squares.
In the following example, the 3rd World Champion Jose Raul Capablanca uses a simple but powerful move, …h5, to secure the f5 square for his knight. Later in the game, Capa’s knight finds its way to an outpost on e4, remaining there for the rest of the game where it supports Black’s endgame plans.
Capablanca annotated this game in his book My Chess Career, and I’ve included his most insightful comments where noted.
As you can see from these two games, knights are very effective if they can operate from a strong outpost. Here are a few things to remember:
Use pawn levers to divert or exchange opposing pawns to protect a potential outpost.
Remember the technique of putting a pawn on h4/h5 (or a4/a5) to prevent opposing pawns from attacking an outpost.
Outposts are only good if you can both occupy it and it is in a sector of a board where the knight can be useful.
Remember that a knight doesn’t have to stay on the outpost forever. Sometimes, the outpost is just a stop along the way for the knight to attack or exchange itself advantageously (as in the Polgar game).
Learning strategy is a long journey that never ends. However, the longer you stay on the path, the more enjoyment and success you will experience in chess. This article is just a beginning. Here are a few ideas on how you can continue to improve your chess strategy:
Strategy starts with the opening. Keep doing your Chessable repetitions and perhaps look at some repertoires written and commented on by strong players (like IM Christof Seilecki aka ChessExplained). As you study your openings, try to understand some of its key strategic elements.
Study annotated games from some of the game’s best strategic masters. I recommend the games of Capablanca, Botvinnik, and Karpov. They have written books of their own games as well as their games being featured in books of other great authors.
Read manuals on strategy to learn how to assess various positional elements such as pawn structure, king safety, bishop versus knight, and others. There are many good ones both classic and modern.
I hope this article was helpful to you and that these beginner chess strategies will help you win more games. If you enjoyed it, please share it with your friends. Chessable is here to aid you on your path to chess improvement. Until next time, I wish you the best of luck in that journey.
Recently I had the opportunity to have a brief exchange with one of our Chessable members, CurtisM97 who has achieved vast improvements in his chess. Curtis is Memorial University of Newfoundland student intending on majoring in Psychology, and his Chessable study patterns are commendable. While not one of our power users who have managed to gather millions of points and studying hundreds of positions in relatively short periods of time, Curtis has made slow but steady gains.
At the moment of writing this, Curtis has learned 135 variations and his maximum daily streak is only 4. However, this is more than enough! You don’t have to learn 300-500 variations and log on every single day, we all have other commitments. Regular and incremental study sessions of chess openings is what’s important. Keep those tricky variations fresh in your mind and don’t try to cram it all in one day, take your time and slowly build up!
My own personal streak has never gone above 30 days, and that was with a lot of effort. I am surprised how some of our Chessable members have kept it going for over hundreds of days! Incredible!
Now, let’s find out a bit more about this amazing rapid chess improvement:
1) You have improved around 500 points in a year of online chess, that’s impressive, how do you feel?
I can only describe my progress as satisfying! I started playing the game because it seemed so satisfying to be good at. So starting with no knowledge of any chess fundamentals and then developing to the point where I am today is very pleasing to me.
2) A lot of work must have gone into this, and your game must have improved all around for such a brilliant change. Let’s break it down, how have you improved your chess openings? I am very privileged to grow up in a time where information is accessible. Having a tool like Chessable on hand has improved my playing significantly, it really sums up what the Internet has to offer chess. Having so much information in one place has allowed me to develop a system for my own playing preferences, and that’s the only way I could learn openings without frustration.
3) Which openings do you play (if you don’t mind sharing!)?
I’ve always played 1. d4 as white, just because I was exposed to that when I started playing. As black, I play the Nimzo-Indian versus d4 and the Caro-Kann versus e4.
4) How have you improved your middle game?
Middle games are a little harder to get used to than the opening for me personally. I mostly depended on chess personalities on YouTube for middle game help. People such as IM John Bartholomew have helped me understand the middle game, as he is one of the most coherent commentators on the Internet. Other than that, Nimzowitsch’s book “My System” has helped me out a lot.
5) What about your endgame, have you worked on that at all?
Admittedly I haven’t really read a book that solely talked about end games. But I have taken as much advice from Grandmaster games and YouTube videos as possible, but I don’t think I could consider that study. I just know the very basics about end game fundamentals.
6) You gained over 200,000 points on Chessable, that’s pretty impressive. What would be your tips to new Chessable users about how to get the most out of the platform?
Studying chess is much like studying anything else. Chessable is a fantastic program for chess study, but you have to study at a healthy pace. Cramming yourself with information will not improve your play, you’ll just get overwhelmed! Develop a study plan, and review what you learned every day! There’s no rush. I’ve been using Chessable since release, so It’s not like I’ve gained 200,000 points over night, it came with time. Making a system for your playing creates consistency in your results.
7) What would you personally like to see improved on Chessable?
At this point in time, the only thing that could be improved with Chessable is purely aesthetic, but that’s being updated very frequently! For a site that’s only in an open beta, you’re getting much more than what you could ask of it.
8) What’s next for you? Any new goals?
Of course my only goal right now is to keep improving! At this point I’m more than happy with the rate of my success. It’s a long shot, but I’d like to increase 200 rating points by November of 2017. That would be my goal for the year. Although it’s only Internet elo, it’s a nice sign of improvement until I have confidence to play OTB in my local tournaments here in Newfoundland!
Thanks Curtis! It’s very inspiring to hear of your progress for our readers and us! As for your struggle with middle games and chess endgames, I am happy to say that adding more chess strategy, chess tactics and chess endgame books is one of our priorities that will hopefully soon be a reality. We also have some novel ideas on how to make studying those as efficient as possible, even more than our system already makes possible. Since those are the areas of my own game that could now use some improvement, expect to see something cool soon!
As we study our opening repertoire using Chessable, there are a few aspects that we should work on understanding and applying in our games. By understanding these, we will be able to connect the reasons behind the moves we choose in the opening phase and connect them to plans and moves in the middlegame and beyond.
The opening is the staging ground for your middlegame operations. Each move dictates what you can and cannot do in the middlegame.
I often talk to other amateur players and they will often say something to the effect of “play the opening moves that you memorized and then just play chess once you’ve left your theoretical knowledge.” This is all well and good, but by understanding a few important aspects of your openings, your ability to “play chess” once you’ve you are on your own at the board will be enhanced.
Over time, doing your repetitions and expanding your opening repertoire with Chessable will help you intuitively and naturally understand the elements I will be discussing. By knowing what to look for ahead of time, you can enhance this process by noting them in your repertoire.
The learning process is cyclical. Doing your repetitions will help you remember and understand your openings. Efforts to understand your opening moves will help you remember the moves. Chessable is the tool to put it together.
As your skill in chess increases and you begin to develop your own personal style, you can use these elements to select openings that fit with your preferences and proclivities.
Primary Win Conditions
The term win condition (or as some game theorists term victory condition) is the way that your opening set-up or variation wins games. This is the first thing you should try to understand about your opening, because it leads to the other elements.
Of course, this does not mean that your win conditions are the only way to win with your opening, but the particular configuration of pieces and pawns tend to lead to certain plans.
Here are a few practical examples.
Consider one of the main line of the Berlin Defense of the Ruy Lopez after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5. d4 Nd6 6. Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8. Qxd8+ Kxd8 (diagram):
Because of the exchanges in this variation, this opening often heads into a complex endgame battle. White’s win condition involves using his kingside majority to eventually create a passed pawn and win in the endgame. Black’s win condition involves using the advantage of having the two bishops to compensate for the damage in his pawn structure. Chess theory says the battle is about even and currently the world’s elite players take up both sides of the argument.
Compare this to the Schara Gambit after 1.d4d52.c4e63.Nc3c54.cxd5cxd4 (diagram):
In this opening, Black sacrifices a pawn to accelerate piece development and open lines of attack. Black’s primary win condition is to use his development advantage and open lines on a direct attack against the king. Conversely, Black’s win condition is to survive long enough where the extra pawn would be close to decisive. Players who take up this gambit as Black need to be willing to play with a lot of energy and perhaps be ready to sacrifice more material to meet his aims.
Here’s an example of a recent encounter between two masters where White fails to secure the safety of his king and Black’s swarming pieces are just too much.
The key is that not only the chosen variations and analysis, but also the illustrative games and commentary to really help you understand the moves within the repertoire. Studying a repertoire in this fashion will help you save a lot of time and effort by leveraging the experience of the master.
How to Handle the Center
Often, the plans behind your opening flow from the type of center your have. Many opening systems have similar central structures so you can study these as you will see them often in your games. I will leave it to you to study the various types of central structures – e.g. fixed, dynamic, etc. – but I will give you a few examples on how the center affects your planning. I encourage you to try to understand these in your openings.
In our first example, let’s look at the position from one of the main lines of the King’s Indian Defense.
After 1.d4Nf62.c4g63.Nc3Bg74.e4d65.Nf3O-O6.Be2e57.O-ONc68.d5Ne7 we have the following position (diagram):
From this position, the locked center has led masters for decades to the following general plans: White will try to push his pawns and attack on the queenside, while Black will prepare to play the thematic pawn break …f7-f5 and attack on the kingside. As we discussed in the above section on win conditions, each respective player’s ability to carry out these plans will determine the outcome.
What is important to note here though is that these plans are partially a result of the locked center. Because the center is locked, play must ensue on the wings. Therefore, sometimes one or both players avoid this type of center in the King’s Indian – for example, with the Exchange Variation: 1.d4Nf62.c4g63.Nc3Bg74.e4d65.Nf3O-O6.Be2e57.dxe5dxe58.Qxd8Rxd8 (diagram):
Here, the symmetrical nature of the center as well as the exchange of queens leads to a more drawish game that often leads into the endgame. Players who play the King’s Indian Defense with Black must be ready for both types of central structures and be familiar with the type of play that ensues.
Many opening variations will lead very quickly into a certain type of central structure and thus study of model games and typical positions will be profitable.
However, certain openings such as the Reti (1.Nf3 d5 2.c4) can often lead to many types of central structures as well as transposing to other opening systems altogether. It is important to study these as well, but we have to be flexible and understand at what points in our opening our opponent can determine the direction of the game.
Thematic Pawn Breaks
Understanding the central structures in our opening systems lead naturally to the thematic pawn breaks in our systems. Understanding when, why, and how we achieve these pawn breaks is important if we are to maximize our effectiveness with our openings.
A good example of understanding the power of pawn breaks is to compare the traditional Queen’s Gambit Declined with the Chigorin Defense of the QGD. First, let’s consider the Queen’s Gambit Declined after the typical moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 (diagram):
Although we are very early in the opening and play can go in many directions, we often will see that Black prepares to break in the center eventually with …c5 (or in some cases with …e5). There are many ways to do this, sometimes right away, as in the Tarrasch Variation of the QGD (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5) or sometimes after some preparation with …b6 or even after first playing …c7-c6 and then later playing …c6-c5. Despite the many ways to get there, the pawn break …c5 is a key way for Black to fight for the center in the Queen’s Gambit Declined.
Now let’s consider the Chigorin Defense of the Queen’s Gambit Declined after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 Nc6 (diagram):
We can see here that the problem now is that the knight blocks the c-pawn, thus delaying or preventing our key …c5 break. Of course, Black has some compensation for this in that he gets a knight developed. Consequently, Black will often play for a …e5 break while White will often use the lack of Black’s …c5 break to build up a strong center.
Although many high level players over the years have championed the Chigorin such as Boris Spassky and more recently Alexander Morozevich, this key “flaw” in Black’s play have kept the Chigorin as a less popular variation within the Queen’s Gambit Declined.
So learn the thematic pawn breaks in your opening and note them in your repertoires in Chessable. As with the Queen’s Gambit Declined, the pawn break may be fairly early in the variation or may come later after some preparation. Understanding when and why they work will help you utilize them more effectively.
Key Minor Pieces
The next element that is important to understand in your opening repertoire are the key minor pieces. We may know that in closed positions, knights tend to be better than bishops because the bishops might get locked in by his own or his opponent’s pawns. Conversely, in fairly open positions, bishops tend to shine with their long lines of attack. However, as we delve deeper into our opening knowledge and understanding of chess in general, these relationships between the minor pieces get more complex.
Understanding which minor pieces to keep and which ones to exchange as well as where to best place them is essential if we are to make the most of our opening repertoire.
Consider the Dragon Variation of the Sicilian Defense: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 (diagram):
Black’s dark-square bishop will play a critical role in many games in this variation. White often castles queenside and attempts a kingside pawn storm against Black’s king while Black does similarly on the queenside. Black’s bishop – commonly known as the “Dragon” bishop – often contributes to Black’s attack while also helping to defend the dark-squares near his own king.
A common strategy for White is therefore to trade this bishop off. Sometimes, in doing so, he has to make concessions elsewhere. An example of this came in a World Championship encounter between Garry Kasparov and Vishy Anand in their 1995 World Championship match. Although Anand with White was able to exchange the dark-square bishops, in taking the time to do so he failed to get his king to safe haven and that was enough for Kasparov to win as he tears apart the center to get at White’s king.
White resigned because he will soon lose a lot of material. For example, if 26.fxe4 Rf6+ 27.Ke1 Rxd4+ 28.Kd1 Rxc4 with an ongoing attack for Black.
Chess is a complex game and that you should not blindly avoid exchanges or make exchanges based on key minor pieces alone, but instead use your knowledge to guide your planning. The reason certain pieces are more important than others in certain positions are not by arbitrary preference. It is because the particulars of the position such as the pawn structure, weak squares, and open lines of attack may favor one piece as opposed to another.
When you are studying openings, there are many things to look at, including specific move orders, transpositions, common middlegame positions, common endgames among others. Depending on the specific opening, this can be very complex.
However, if you can start recognizing and applying some of the elements in this article, you can start to make sense of the nuances within your openings. This combined with your own game experience and consistent repetition and practice of your openings with Chessable will help improve your chess results.
I had a chat with a Chessable user, Professor Tim McGrew. Tim provides an in-depth Chessable review and how it has helped him improve his chess. Tim told us that opening preparation was one of the keys to achieve his lifelong ambition, the USCF National Master title. Openings that Tim rehearsed on Chessable were played in some important games. Thanks to our science-backed chess opening learning tools, Tim was able to make the most out of his opening preparation. His review follows in form of an unaltered interview:
Read on; this review style interview is packed full of instructional moments!
1) How did you find out about Chessable?
Word of mouth — my teenage daughter had found the site and described it to me.
2) What were your first few days on Chessable like?
Initially, I clicked around to see what was free and started exploring it. IM John Bartholomew’s Scandinavian repertoire — the free version — blew me away. Once I had seen that, I realized that I needed to get an account and import some of my own analysis for study.
3) How has your experience using Chessable changed since the first few times you used it to what it is like now?
The biggest change came when I realized the kind of work I needed to do in order to create my own opening repertoires for self study. There are two critical points here. First, a serious repertoire that will actually serve in tournament conditions at master level has to be fairly detailed. Yes, there are some openings that require a lot more work than others, but even theoretical sidelines demand some detail work these days. Second, I realized that the fundamental feature of Chessable — the spaced repetition — would enable me to recall much more than I was used to carrying around in my memory.
4) How many hours per day on average would you say you use Chessable for?
This varies greatly, as I have a family and a day job. Some days I may put in several hours (which fly by, since it’s fun); others, just a few minutes.
5) Your 53 day streak is impressive, any tips to fellow users to achieve such great study habits?
I like to do at least something every day. If I set myself a micro goal of doing ten positions a day, there is really no excuse not to do it. And generally I will do much more than the micro goal, even on a busy day.
6) What’s your favourite repertoire? If it’s a private one, could you please describe it a little bit that would be great.
My favorite public repertoire has to be the full version of John Bartholomew’s Scandinavian repertoire. It’s solid, interesting, and full of ideas that he has clearly tested with computer assistance. And he covers even the more obscure sidelines, making it a complete repertoire against 1.e4.
I have several private repertoires that I have constructed. Usually I will start with an idea I like, fold in the main lines from some GM games, and then look it up on a theory site to see what is current. Once I have built it out to a certain level of detail, I run through all of the lines with Stockfish 7 at 20 ply or deeper to do some tactical cleaning.
It’s very important, however, not to restrict the repertoire to lines the computer comes up with. Human opponents are going to play moves that look natural to them, and at this stage of repertoire building one needs to include those lines to maximize the probability of using one’s preparation over the board.
7) What have you noticed that is different about your chess play now that you use Chessable?
I had several holes in my repertoire that needed to be plugged. I’ve been in the upper 2100s USCF for about a decade, and my repertoire was fine for beating most club players, but closer to master level it began to break down. I was still playing some lines that weren’t ready for mission-critical applications. And these days, strong opponents do their homework between encounters with the assistance of GM-strength chess engines. So if there are holes in your repertoire, they are going to find them!
With the Chessable tools, I was able to address this problem and plug those holes. I have also built some repertoires just for fun to explore some new lines I am considering playing. So Chessable has not only helped me to fix concrete problems but also inspired me to widen my repertoire, which should make me a moving target for my opponents’ opening preparation.
8) If you had any rating changes, what were they? Do you think Chessable contributed to this rating change?
Actually, yes! About a month and a half after I started using Chessable heavily, I finally went over 2200 and earned my National Master title, a lifetime ambition of mine. I’m over 50, and at my age, most chess players find their ratings going down rather than up, so you can well imagine how pleased I am with this turn of events! I have no doubt that my work on Chessable was a significant factor, not only because it sharpened my openings but also because it increased my confidence in my opening preparation.
9) Some people say studying openings is unnecessary and you should be able to play any opening well (eg Capablanca was a natural! Apparently). What do you think of this kind of statements?
I think it’s unrealistic for non-professionals to aspire to play every opening well, if by “well” you mean at their own rating standard. For example, I don’t play the Grünfeld from either side. Now, it’s good to understand the basic strategic concepts behind openings one doesn’t play. But the most important thing is to understand the openings one does play.
10) What would you say to someone who has either just started using Chessable or is thinking of using it?
Players at different levels need different things. If you are a beginner, you need to get into the middlegame alive. I’ve been thinking of creating a repertoire for just that purpose for some of my younger students. If you are a club player (say, 1400-1800) and serious about moving up, you may want to work with a stronger player to develop a repertoire that is right for you. If you are over 2000 OTB and are willing to work at it, you can develop your own repertoires and upload them as private repertoires for personal study. But have a look at some of the ones that are built and for sale already — it could save you some time, and who knows, you might fall in love with something new!
Tim McGrew is a Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University. He has been playing tournament chess for about 40 years and coaches his two chess-playing daughters.
The answers to the interview questions appear unaltered as Tim answered them. Hyperlinks were added for the reader’s convenience by Chessable. This case study and Chessable review is made available with the kind permission of Tim. Thank you Tim for providing us with this Chessable review and interview. We really appreciate it!