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Saturday, December 22, 2012

How Did Masters Get There?

      I recently saw a discussion where they question was asked of titled players exactly what they did to reach 2200.  The answers were interesting.
      Most people on chess forums recommend studying tactics, a scant few say positional play, some endings and just about all ‘class’ players study openings. Most of the people giving this advice are class players themselves. A few years ago there was one popular poster on a forum who gave all kinds of advice on how to improve; anybody (including well respected authors and master players) who disagreed with him was frankly told they did not know what they were talking about. He did succeed in getting his rating from about 1400 to the low 1700s, but when he could no longer play in lower sections and started meeting 1700-1800s he dropped back to 1500 or so.  After bouncing back and forth for a year, he announced he was quitting chess and was never heard from again.  So much for his advice.  Two years of following his own advice got him a hundred points, but he enjoyed two years of fame as the guru of the 1400s on the site.  So, what did the masters themselves say?
      WGM Natalia Pogonina said evaluate your games (by solving tests or with a coach) and find the weakest spot. Eliminate it, then proceed to the next one. This scheme works for anyone, no matter how high or low the level.  This is similar to advice given by Botvinnik in 100 Selected Games.  One thing I have noticed is that many very strong players aren’t very good at explaining what they know.  Somehow they seem to have subconsciously absorbed the information and their advancement was simply too rapid for them to consciously know exactly how they did it.  As one person pointed out, learning is different from understanding. 
       One big issue was the value of books by popular author Jeremy Silman; most people will say his books are very good, but…Silman's books make you feel like you understand the concepts he is teaching, but it is applying those concepts that is the hard part.  Many years ago while in the military I read and reread Pachman’s Modern Chess Strategy and felt I understood the concepts he taught.  In my first tournament game after my discharge, I got into a position where I tried to apply the old Bishops vs. Knights concept and things were progressing quite well.  I managed to block the center and had a good outpost for my Knight against his bad Bishop.  All according to my understanding of the concept…but the problem was my opponent had engineered a mating attack against my King.
      Silman’s books have long been on the best seller lists and many people give the advice to read them. However, one National Master commented that he had never heard another master make the claim that they read Silman's books and became a master.  In his opinion the books by the old classical authors are just as effective.  This master observed that Silman’s most famous book, How to Reassess Your Chess,  is just sales hype although he did admit that is is probably good enough to get some players to 2000.  Of course most players would be more than happy to get to 2000-plus!! He said that he never heard a master say they loved Silman’s books.
      In order to get to 2200, this master  said he played through 3 unannotated games a day for 10 years, solved tactical exercises too numerous to counts, read dozens of chess books.  This method has been advocated by both CJS Purdy and Kenneth Smith.
      Another National Master advised selecting openings that allow you to reach the types of middlegames where you understand the ideas.  He wrote that he jumped from the 1600s to the 1800s after he learned some openings and started applying the middlegame patterns that came from them. He advanced from the 1800s to master after he learned openings that suited his playing strengths.  He didn’t say so, but this sounds like Pogonina’s advice that you have to identify your weaknesses and work to eliminate them.  I think this process would require absorbing a lot of knowledge on all phases of the game.
      After reading the replies from 2200-rated players it seems no one method worked for all of them, but the general drift I got was that there was no one particular book that was the magic bullet.  They all seem to have absorbed information from various sources and then learned how to apply what they knew.  It’s the latter part, applying what you know, that is the hard part and, apparently, the most difficult thing to teach.


  1. I'm interested in the idea of playing over unannotated games but this seems a bit like speed reading. Woody Allen says he took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes, and concluded "It's about Russia". I wonder if you ever tried this (playing over many games), and with what results?

  2. Yes I advocate this method. I have done several posts on this subject explaining the idea behind it. You can find them by using the search this site box by typing in 'unannotated games'

  3. Can you provide a link to this discussion?

  4. Unfortunately I do not remember which forum I saw it on and was not able to locate it again.