What Not To Do: A Grandmaster’s Advice


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Guest columnist Grandmaster Alex Colovic provided our final blog post of 2020 and he returns today with a fascinating piece full of advice on how to improve at chess.

Alex doesn’t tell you what to do; he offers advice on…

What Not To Do

A lot of advice, mine included, is about what you should do in order to achieve a certain aim. Much less attention is paid to what not to do, but oftentimes what you don’t do is no less important than what you actually do.

In this post I will share my opinion of what should at least be taken in moderation, when striving for chess improvement. Without further ado, here’s my compilation of harmful activities.

Grandmaster Alex Colovic

Too Much Theory

Do not spend too much time studying theory. This is perhaps self-explanatory, but I am the first to attest that studying theory is addictive. It is addictive because it feels good, you are in fact improving your openings and you are getting better at them. Still, the game of chess doesn’t end with the opening. Even if you have a big advantage after it, you still need to play good chess in order to win the game.

The core issue here is that when you play your prepared lines you’re playing your moves at a level of 3500, or something similar, because you’re preparing with an engine. When your knowledge ends, you’re dropping back to your rating of 2500, 2300, 1800, or whatever it may be. See the difference? You start to play so much weaker compared to your preparation! Logically, then, in order to win the game it makes more sense to raise the level of your play after the preparation, even at the expense of it – a slight drop in the level of your preparation will be more than compensated by your better play in the middlegame and the endgame.

Chess Videos

Do not spend too much time watching chess videos. OK, I know this may sound like a blasphemy, but please bear with me. I know there are a lot of excellent videos out there, on pretty much any subject, but my issue with watching videos is that it is a very passive way of learning. And that is not an effective use of your time.

If you are to dedicate one hour to watching videos as opposed to training calculation blindfold, or studying one game by Capablanca, which one do you think will make you better at playing chess? In today’s modern culture where everybody is pressed for time in their everyday lives it is of utmost importance to make the most out of the time that you have for chess. Just watching instead of actively engaging your brain is not the way to do it. 

Online Chess

Do not spend too much time playing online. Perhaps I am pushing this a bit, as I am addressing some of the most pleasant and interesting activities when it comes to chess, but it does seem analogous to when a doctor advises us to cut down on carbs or sugar… I have already written about this issue before, here I will only reiterate the point – too much  online activity is harmful. It is addictive and after a while it will turn you into a mouse-clicking machine.

Needless to say, your brain shuts down then and when you actually get to play a game in a tournament hall and you need it, it won’t be very responsive as it has got used to moving the hand fast rather than thinking.

Turn Off the Engine

Do not turn the engine on before you think for yourself. This is impossible, I know. But a very curious thing happens when the engine is on. You think everything is clear and easy, the moves it suggests are natural and “of course this is easily winning.” Try turning it off then. It is the same position with +5 for you, yet when you yourself have to come up with moves things stop being clear and easy.

How many times have you heard “Oh, I was completely winning, the engine said +15, but somehow I lost…” It is exactly because of that – the engine is a constant producer of moves, your brain isn’t.

Your brain needs to work to produce a move and looking at how easily the engine does it gives you the wrong impression that coming up with (good) moves is easy. The bottom line here is that you must consider the human factor when looking at a position. Yes, it may be +5, but if you find it difficult to come up with moves, then perhaps it’s not as “easily” winning as you thought. And the same applies to your opponent.

Using Your Brain

If you look at the above “do-nots” you will notice that they are result of technological advancements that didn’t exist until more or less the beginning of this century, perhaps even later for the majority of people. Before, if you worked on chess, it was impossible not to improve. This was so because work meant using your brain for whatever you did, including opening work.

I remember once GM Kozul told me how in the late 80s he spent one month working on his Grunfeld with Black (using Informators, the D-Encyclopaedia, articles etc.) and then scored fantastic results in the following period because his head was working so well. Today, it is actually possible to work on chess and not improve at all, simply because the work you do is mechanical, like hitting the Space Bar and “working on your openings”.

To sign off, a word of advice of what to do – just be aware of what you’re doing.

Further Reading:

Grandmaster Colovic’s website.

Our interview with Grandmaster Colovic.

The Chessable courses of Grandmaster Colovic.

Grandmaster Alex Colovic

These include the highly popular Lifetime Repertoires: Chebanenko Slav, which was shortlisted for the Chessable Course of the Year Award for 2020.

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