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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thoughts on Ken Smith's Method

US Senior Master Kenneth Smith, who died in 1999, owned a publishing company that published many, many chess books back in the days when about the only place you could get good books was from Europe. Many of his books weren’t all that good but the sales hype was great. In any case Smith had a lot to offer aspiring players in those days when it came to advice on improving. That was back in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

He advocated playing a LOT of different gambits until you reached 1800. Of course he published all the opening monographs for those gambits. Smith said: "You must play them, win with them, and lose with them. There is no substitute. Being a pawn down, you will have to dig into each position on each move. You will learn to use that extra space and tempo. You will develop that "killer instinct" and learn to handle open positions - being ready when that closed position will surely become open. Those than cannot stand to lose games and rating points because they are converting to gambit play ARE HOPELESS in my book."

Some players, like GM Alex Yermolinsky, advocate the opposite. Play standard classical openings that will withstand the test of time and be good for years to come. Makes sense to me at least. You’ll put in no more time learning the nuances of the Ruy Lopez than you will have spent studying a half a dozen different gambit openings and changing them every couple years (if not more often than that.) In short, that’s exactly what Smith’s method had you doing…changing openings on a regular basis.

Here is some of Smith’s advice on other aspects of the game:
(1) Emphasize tactics. This will overcome a bad opening, a poor middlegame and lack of endgame knowledge. Only until you reach "Expert" can you stop devouring everything on combinations and tactics.
(2) Every chess book should be saved and gone over a second time. There is no consensus of how much time between readings. Only that you be at a different level of strength.
(3) Master a complete White opening system and a complete Black defensive system. It does not matter what they are---a complete simple one is better than an incomplete superior one.

Until you are at least a high Class A player (1900):
"Your first name is "Tactics", your middle name is "Tactics", and your last name is "Tactics". You can overcome a weak opening and be so far ahead in material that the endgame is mopping up. I demand that you get every book on tactics and combinations that you can afford and study it as if your life depended on it! Also, there is nothing like a complete game to school you in these tactics as well as the rest of the elements of chess."

Smith also recommended playing over games by famous players. His advice and reasons: "CHOOSE TWO GREAT PLAYERS - JUST TWO - AT THIS TIME! I want you to identify a little with a Tal, Alekhine, Fischer, Capablanca, Kasparov, Morphy, Karpov, Keres, Seirawan, etc. Pick one living Master and one of the dead greats to become familiar with. I want you to have someone to talk about, argue about, and above all, learn and enjoy from his chess!."

Smith also advocated playing over hundreds of unannotated games, spending 5-10 minutes on each while trying to guess the next move. The idea was to increase pattern recognition skills. For those who advocate Smith's method this one is often overlooked, but...Jeremy Silman, today’s top selling author for average players, said in a book review, “Chess literature is being swamped with countless books on openings (some good, some bad – the vast majority much too advanced to be of real use to the average player), tactics (useful, but usually cut-and-paste jobs), the middlegame (lots of positions without any real instructive value), the endgame (“dull” is a four letter word), and game collections.”

“On one hand intuition is something that goes beyond learning, study, and/or knowledge. On the other hand, many so-called intuitive moves and ideas are clearly pattern recognition. Since pattern recognition (i.e., the ability to instantly know where the pieces belong based on a deep knowledge and familiarity with pawn structures and developmental or tactical patterns) is a learned skill, I’m again left floating for an answer to a newly formed question: “Is there true intuition in chess, or is everything based on a knowledge of patterns?” Suddenly, another question pops up: “Is the ability to retain and recognize patterns (a skill only the professionals seem to have honed) based on one’s innate intuitive feel?” In other words, does intuition make pattern recognition possible in the first place?”

“At this point your reviewer has hopelessly confused himself. Personally, I feel that 99.9% of chess is based on some form of pattern recognition. However, now and then an unknowable decision is made – a decision that has little to do with clear patterns or calculation (though even here the shadow of past structures and tactics quietly flutter their wings in the recesses of the player’s mind). This kind of rare decision is intuitive, and this takes us back to the book.”

“For example, many of Tal’s sacrifices begin with basic pattern recognition (i.e., knowledge of typical attacking structures and even a learned “feel” for the cadence of an attack) but then are “substantiated” by intuition since they are often incalculable.”

GM Susan Polgar made this statement: "One of the biggest misconceptions about chess is it requires a lot of memorization. In reality, while some memorization is required, pattern recognition plays a crucial part in chess mastery." She said this about her first teacher, her father: "He emphasized visualization, pattern recognition and speed. We learned to play blindfold and blitz chess at an early age and solved thousands of chess puzzles in our childhood.

I won’t debate whether it’s better for lower rated players to study tactics, strategy or endings, or play gambits or classical openings. That’s because chess like all other subjects you study should be taken as a whole. If you attended college when did you walk out of the bookstore with just one book on a single subject? You had several books on several subjects and you attended class on them all; you had to study more than one subject at a time.

Why do we try to make chess different and say you should concentrate on only one aspect at a time? Even an elementary school student has to study language, math, social studies, etc. all at the same time, but for some reason chess players think it’s too difficult and counterproductive.

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