I used this slogan for one of the graphic elements on my front page. What might sound like a marketing ploy to some, is indeed my honest opinion. It is a motto, I strictly followed since 1994. But let me explain this step by step.
Decisions, decisions, decisions…..
How can I improve my chess in the quickest possible way? Should I rather spend my time with openings, the middle game, technical endgames, endgame strategy, tactical patterns, calculation, chess history, psychology, game collections of great players, comprehensive textbooks…..?
These are legitimate questions, as there are many different areas which constitute your overall chess strength. Of course, the right answer depends on your individual situation (strengths and weaknesses, level and distribution of knowledge), which only you or your trainer know. Here are some ideas to have in mind:
- Playing a lot and thoroughly analyzing your games might be the best you can do. However, many readers will have constraints regarding their available time.
- You might want to look where you still have empty spaces on your knowledge map. According to Pareto, you can achieve 80% of the result with 20% of the (right) effort. Hence, if you deal with virgin territory, you get results faster compared to your fields of expertise.
- Think about how you lose your games. What are your biggest deficits? Which of them hurt the most?
- Fun is very important as it releases energy. What topics are you exited about? What subject has the power to increase the time you spend on chess or the intensity (effort of thought/focus) of your training? Without focus and hard work, people tend to consume rather than train. Consumed topics don’t enter the brain that deeply, don’t get wired very well and are in danger of being forgotten soon.
After these generic thoughts I will now become more specific and introduce my favored training method.
Openings are a problem for many. You might recognize yourself in one or two of the following points:
- A quality repertoire is generally of high maintenance
- So many books to choose from, so much bad quality to avoid.
- Learning with book and board is slow and cumbersome in many ways (see “The problems with books” below).
- If you don’t learn properly, you don’t understand the logic of a line or position. Being out of book leaves you disorientated.
- Then, there are those opponents who appear to know all moves by heart. They always have a head start against you. You think you are the more talented player, but still lose against them.
- Your opening problems result in time trouble. You throw around with points and what was meant to be a recreational activity turns into stress.
- As you study openings the wrong way, you don’t analyze your losses properly. Instead, you blame the line, throw it into the dump and have to look for something else.
- You don’t look forward to games, fearing to run into preparations or stepping into yet another gap. You start the game with negative energy.
- It feels like you are playing chess with a handicap, like a constant uphill fight.
Making the opening your ally
Even though it requires some effort, things could be different. You could be the one who is sitting in the driver’s seat. You could master the opening and control the game. In that scenario you would be looking forward to a match many days upfront, secure in the knowledge that your education is good. Maybe you are going to honor your local rival with a special preparation this time. You arrive at the board with confidence and are loaded with positive energy. Your posture displays dominance, while he visibly has a hard time pondering about his moves. His clock is ticking and you know that even if he will solve the opening problems, his time consumption will make him prone to mistakes in the second half of the game. Live is easy, when the opening is at your service.
Mastering openings was important at all times, but recent developments have increased its significance. The access to opening theory has been considerably improved, as strong engines and big databases allow a wider circle of authors to publish material. Nowadays, you are meeting well-prepared opponents also on the lower levels. Then, the decrease of playing time has reduced your ability to solve difficult opening problems over the board without getting into serious time trouble. A good preparation is more relevant than ever.
Following the masters
The wide majority of IM and GM conduct a very opening-centered form of training. They study one line after the other and soak up the underlying patterns like a sponge. That way, they not only entertain a versatile and dangerous repertoire, they also get acquainted with the specific logic of a wide range of position types and end up having a refined and universal chess understanding, applicable in any conceivable environment. Of course, no amateur has time and resources to imitate the pros 1 to 1, but he can very well adopt professional methods to some extent.
Using synergy effects: Combine strategy and opening training
The key to learning openings lays in combining it with studying the underlying middlegame motifs and structures. That way, you will achieve 4 things at the same time:
- You establish and learn concrete theoretical knowledge.
- You understand the inherent logic of your systems (how to arrange the pieces, which piece to exchange, where to put the king, which pawn break to employ etc.) and thus know how to help yourself when being out of book.
- You enrich your pool of patterns which you can apply in different openings using the method of analogy.
- You improve your general chess understanding (internalization of general concepts, feel for harmony and energy flow).
Thinking economically and killing several birds with one stone is very important in time-consuming activities such as chess. While it is also a good idea to study the middlgame separately with the aid of good literature, focusing predominantly on the variations of your opening repertoire makes a lot of sense to me. There are simply more opportunities to apply this kind of targeted knowledge.
Creating variation trees
What you basically have to do is divide your lines into sub-lines (sometimes sub-sub-lines) and merge all respective games into one variation tree. A good number is 15 – 30 games. Consider this raw tree a block of marble and yourself a sculptor. Now you have to elaborate the block and bring structure, logic and sometimes even beauty to the fore. Here are some steps you can apply:
- Use the order function of ChessBase in order to reveal the quantitative mainline (lean tree, no big bulges).
- However, quantity not always equals quality. Hence, you still have to check the moves with a strong engine on a decent hardware. To get reliable results use a general search depth of about 30 plys (half moves). After that you will probably have to change the hierarchy at some places.
- If you are not dealing specifically with recent email games, the truth is rather to be found in lines (novelties) than in actual games.
- Analyze also critical positions of sidelines.
- Pay attention to important tactical motifs, recurring maneuvers and typical transformations of the pawn structure.
- Make verbal notes to highlight important observations.
- At a later stage, you can add new games or continue your analyzes (maybe with more computing power), which makes the tree an organic and flexible tool. With every new tree you are actively creating (using a lot of brain juice), there will be a meaningful growth of your chess understanding taking place.
For me this method definitively worked out well, so I can recommend it with good conscience. After I started to practice it intensively, I became 2nd, 3rd, 1st and 1st in the German Championship in the following four consecutive years from 1994 – 1997. The absence of further successes is due to the fact that I retired from professional tournament chess at the beginning of 1998, seizing an interesting business opportunity.
The problems with books
There are good opening books around, dealing with useful strategic explanations. Its structural problems however, makes the opening book a second tier training tool:
- It takes ages to play through lines.
- There is very limited scope for modifying the content or adding to it.
- You can’t directly check the information with an engine.
- You don’t have access to full games, which is important for studying the middlegame plans or to see how a line unfolds into a typical ending.
- You can’t prepare effectively with books in the short time available during a tournament.
Transferring the knowledge to your computer
I am aware of the fact that the creation of variation trees on the basis of naked games is considerably more difficult for the amateur than for a professional. Yet I think, with the aid of a strong engine it is a feasible task. Honing ones analytical skills (choosing the lines the engine has to calculate, being committal with annotations etc.) is very important for every serious chess player. And the sheer quantity of images you are getting exposed to fills up your chess pattern vocabulary in the quickest possible way.
A good way of getting help, and at the same time solving the shortcomings of chess books, is to create variations trees on the basis of good opening books:
- Take the structure of the book and merge games for each given line.
- Rearrange the hierarchy of each variation according to the book.
- Insert all crucial information, chess symbols and the most important verbal annotations.
- Now you have the book on your computer, which is already a big feat, as you can now study the material repeatedly and in high speed. Note that the process of entering all information already has a good training effect, as it requires a high degree of awareness.
- Of course you don’t have to stop at this point. You can refine the material by analyzing critical positions which have been neglected by the author and are possibly highlighted by recent games. You could also correct mistakes, potentially caused by smaller engine power, depending on the date of the publication.
Once you have done all that work, which is worth the while in any case, you start to really appreciate commercial offers of ChessBase/pgn-analyses. There are quite a few these days. What are the criteria to watch out for?
- The quality of the opening
I strongly advocate quality openings. If you want to go for sub par material due to its surprise value, do it on your own risk. In my opinion you lose time with that strategy, as the feeling of disgust will arrive earlier than you might think. Your opponents avail of strong engines which will call out garbage when they see it.
- The quality of the author
The stronger the better. Of course, you shouldn’t only consider playing strength but also insight on the meta level as well as communicative abilities.
- The quantity of the analysis
There are different styles, between minimalstic and comprehensive. In my view, a comprehensive approach is more in line with the complex reality of chess.
- The quality of the analysis
The quality of the analysis can vary strongly according to qualification, effort and intellectual honesty of the author.
- Verbal comments
Symbolic comments rarely reveal the richness of a position on a conceptual level. Hence, most readers depend on explicit verbal comments. Furthermore, readers generally want to enjoy the process of learning. Verbal comments strongly add to its entertainment value.
Material that is distributed by a larger platform will become mainstream quicker compared to smaller providers. This might diminish the surprise value to some degree.
Part of the beauty of chess is its democratic nature. It can be played by boy and girl, old and young, poor and rich alike. As it is not very material-intensive, chess clubs usually don’t charge high membership fees. On a basic level chess is a low cost activity. For many professional chess service providers, this constitutes a problem, as this low-cost image of chess is somehow hard-wired in the heads of people, even if it comes to high-end products. Of course, it is up to every individual how he or she wants to evaluate a service. It is just that people sometimes seemingly overlook parts of the equation. In my view the willingness to pay for a chess service should be a function of the following elements:
1.the quality of the product +
2.the general market price level+
3.the importance of success in chess for the client (factor of personal happiness) +
4.the client’s potential gain of time +
5.the client’s valuation of his time (based on his professional hourly rate or his subjective value of his spare time/life time)
Point 2: Almost everyone is aware of the importance of chess for his life. Addressing many different intellectual abilities at the same time, it is a fascinating multi-tier challenge like no other. It keeps us mentally fit and unlike other hobbies such as physical sports, chess will be a faithful companion until the end. Also the quality of chess as an ego-booster is directly known to everyone on an emotional level. There is hardly anything sweeter than enjoying the fresh feeling of a successfully finished tournament game. According to my experience, the allocation of resources not always reflects this rather high significance.
Point 3: I also have the feeling that people are not very aware of the huge amount of wasted time, which accumulates in the course of years. It is time that could have been saved by consulting experts. For instance, many chess friends commit fundamental meta level mistakes with regard to their opening repertoire over decades. What would have only become of them, if they had studied a) quality openings b) in the right manner, c) beginning at an early stage? The same applies to internalizing the major middle game concepts or to adopting methodically correct thinking patterns.
Point 4: The next step would be the translation of hours saved into monetary value. If something in my house breaks down, I almost always consult a handyman, instead of doing it myself, as any repair would take me at least four times as long. Financially, I fare much better using my time for doing what I can do best, for instance, giving chess advise. After all, division of labor was one of the decisive drivers of human progress for a reason.
As a consequence of the low-cost paradigm, authors of pgn-analyses who want to target a bigger market have to offer their product for a relatively low price. On the flip side they cannot invest an incredible amount of time in its production. Quite understandable, as otherwise it wouldn’t be financially rewarding for them. If you see a low cost offer, you cannot be too picky with regard to my checklist above. Embrace it by all means, if the subject is interesting for you. Just be aware that in most cases it doesn’t contain the same amount of information as a book. It is no turnkey solution for you, but an interesting way to get quick access to the structure of an opening and many interesting ideas. That is worth a lot, in my opinion.