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Wednesday, December 15, 2010


I’ve been browsing the last couple of days. Yesterday it was Jeremy Silman’s How To Reassess Your Chess (3rd Edition) and today it was a couple of forums. On just about every forum there are always new players asking how they can improve and the answers are always the same: study tactics.

Of course not everybody has read Silman’s book, but out of those who have I question how many actually READ what he had to say. In the introduction we read, “The purpose of this book is to offer a complete course of study to the serious student. You will be taught the basic endgames, middlegame concepts, and the true purpose of the openings. You will be taught how to structure your thinking processes and how to come up with plans based on the needs of any given position.”

Regarding endgames he had this to say: ”EVERYONE needs to know the basics of endgame play…I am only giving basic endgame material that I think you simply must know.”

“Usually their choice of plan (if they have a plan at all) is based on emotional rather than scientific consideration…the typical player does what he feels like doing rather than what the boards wants him to do. If you want to be successful you have to base your plans on specific criteria…not on your mood…”

And when it comes to tactics, “Calculating variations madly without any goal in mind, they think that chess is nothing more than a quick mating attack or a search for a pretty combination that can knock an opponent out of the game.”

Silman’s book was, as he claims, written for players from Class D (1200) to Expert (2000-2199). According to the USCF, class ratings are described as follows:

Class A (1800-1999) Top Amateur
Class B (1600-1799 Strong Tournament Player
Class C (1400-1599) Average Tournament Player
Class D (1200-1399) Strong Social Player
Class E (1000-1199) Social Player
Class F (800-999) Novice Player
Classes G-J (100-799) Various Beginners

I’d guess most of the players asking these questions must be Class D or below and for some strange reason most of the answers come from their peers. Seriously, if I want to know how to improve at anything, then, to me, it only makes sense to ask somebody who knows more about the subject than I do. Even those who are rated above most of the people posing those questions are likely to give the same answers. I find that strange because they should know better. Most likely they do it because they have followed a progression similar to the one outlined by Silman.

After learning the moves and gaining some experience, they studied a few mating patterns and some basic endgames where they learned how to mate with a Q or R against a lone K. Mostly they love to attack and so studied tactics. This resulted in a modest rating gain. However, against more experienced players, when they tried to attack it usually failed because their opponents didn’t fall for elementary tactics or drop pieces. The result is that they experience a rating plateau.

It seems to me, with the plethora of tactical servers and the old saying I must have seen a thousand times “Chess is 99% tactics,” the idea comes into play that because of the initial rating gain, they go back and do more tactical exercises which usually doesn’t help much. If they are lucky, eventually they learn to avoid weak P’s, develop all their pieces before attacking and think about how to avoid the loss of material. Somewhere in the middle of all this they also memorized some openings albeit many times inferior ones. All this is usually enough to reach the Class C level, but again, they usually are stuck there. Like the lower rated players, their solution to the problem is often the same. Learn a different opening and go back and study more tactics. What they should do is pay attention to Silman! Let me reiterate:

They need to undertake a complete course of study. This includes learning how to structure their thinking process, how to come up with plans based on the needs of the position (aka positional play), basic K and P and R and P endings, and playing solid openings with an eye to understanding how those openings relate to the middlegame and even, in some cases, endings.

All of this requires a lot of study, much of which is boring and not nearly as much fun as doing tactical puzzles. It also requires something more than an opening book that ends at move 20 with an evaluation of “White stands better” or books with nothing more than a bunch of game fragments. Diagrammed positions are OK sometimes to illustrate a point, but most often you need complete games because they illustrate the game as a whole. To that end game collections are invaluable.

Silman’s comment is worth repeating: “Calculating variations madly without any goal in mind, they think that chess is nothing more than a quick mating attack or a search for a pretty combination that can knock an opponent out of the game.” It is important for the aspiring player to see the game as whole, not disjointed fragments.

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