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The following was submitted to www.chesstalk.com as GM Spraggett's  answers to several participants' questions.

Originally posted to Chesstalk on December 5, 1999

The questions !

(click on a question to see the answer, or just continue scrolling)

Q. How did I learn the game?

Q. What books had a big influence on me?

Q. Is a chess tutor useful?

Q. When should a child begin formal training?

Q. Does speed chess help?

Q. What kind of exercises are useful for tactics, endgames, etc.

Q. Are training techniques different from country to country?


Q. How did I learn the game?

A. Chess has always been part of my family life. (Even today, for example, whenever the family gets together there is always a chess set around.) However, only when I entered high school did I join a chess club and found out that there was such a thing as a 'chess ego'. I was a horrid player when I was 13 years old, and beating me seemed to bring out the worse in my adversaries (they could 'smell' the kill before they sat down). I think that a lot of the progress I made was due to my competitive nature: I found my adversaries' insults to stimulate my interest in getting better (and I enjoyed immensely listening to their excuses for losing to me)!


Q. What books had a big influence on me?

A. In those days there weren't an awful lot of books available . My high school library was the source of most of my books, and occasionally I would win a 'book-prize' for my age group in some of the early tournaments that I played in. I do remember some terrible Reinfeld books! He tried to make playing chess a type of 'cliche': A Knight on the rim looks dim! or Never take the queen's knight pawn with the queen. or whatever (I am certain you know the type). I even remember the name of the first chapter of one of his books :'How to end it all.'...even today this
gives me a chuckle.(Reinfeld was a prolific writer: he died at the age of 54(or thereabouts) and has to his record some 200-odd books . Fortunately, not all of them were chess books!)

I do remember reading Fischer's '60 Memorable Games' and some Tal books. However, the books that had the greatest influence on me were Laskers (Emanuel): Lasker's Manual, and Common Sense in Chess. These books, even today, stand out among the 1200 or so books that I have in my library (I have lost count) These books brought chess to a different level for me: they talked to me as a human being instead of just someone interested in chess. The ‘Manual' even deals with the philosophy of struggle and the nature of chess-psychology. I owe Lasker a great deal for my chess attitudes and principles. In my library I have just one portrait: Emanuel Lasker. And this picture is for a good reason placed above my library stacks: Lasker's teachings are about experience and above book learning.

Some other books that impressed me were Euve's 'Middlegame Series' (which can be bought in two volumes) and a book called 'How not to play chess' by Z.Borovsky (excuse the spelling). Another great book was 'Pawn Power' in chess: after you read that book you never will look at the pawn the same way! I was already a master before I even saw an 'Informant', and can probably say this was just good luck! Today the young player (or the 'beginner' if he is older) is hit on the head with the amount of chess literature available. It is overpowering. Simply too much information. And there is too much marketing in chess books today. The casual chess-book browser is soon hit by a deepening sense of insecurity when he enters a chess-shop: he thinks if he doesn't buy a book (or two) maybe he will not be able to beat his opponent's openings, or worse, his opponents will buy the 'How to beat such and such and opening' and that will be the end of his favourite opening! There are just too many opening books! And they are so expensive. My advice to you is to limit the number of opening books you have, and concentrate on the basics: middlegame strategy and tactics and endings. Probably no more than 20 to 30 books is all that is necessary for the average tournament player.

This being said, there are still a number of good books coming out: Dvoretsky's books are great for advanced players who can pay the pricetag, and anything by John Watson is worth its weight in gold. There are also a number of other writers who are producing some good material... But in general you should not get more books than you have the time to open and 'nurture'. The order in which you get your books is also relatively unimportant...the learning process is very flexible.

Q. Is a chess tutor useful?

A. Absolutely! Even grandmasters need to use tutors, though it is a little different: the 'tutor' a GM uses is more of a sparring partner, someone who a GM can analyze with. The important thing is to get feedback from someone else, who can lead you to discovering the mistakes you
make or who can show you that in any given position there is another good move out there and not just the move your hand goes for. A tutor (or teacher, or trainer, it is all the same thing) should be able to listen to you and give you some good advice. But note, a chess tutor doesn't necessarily have to be stronger than you, or even know more about chess than you.

I remember fondly my first highschool chess tutor, Ray Tyler. The school chess club contracted
him for $5 a lesson to train and prepare our team for the interscholastic school championships. His 'lessons' would start about 3:30 and often not end before 11:00 in the evening. (Try to find value like that nowadays!) I know that I learned more about chess in one month of lessons with him than at any other time later in my life. And do you want to know the funny thing: Ray Tyler was not much stronger than the weakest player on our team! But that didn't prevent us from learning and having fun doing so. Learning is an attitude and Ray motivated us (especially me) and showed us that chess was a much bigger universe than any of us were aware!

If you can not get a tutor, or can not afford one, then just show your games to your friends! Get their opinions, get their ideas. Explain to them what your ideas are, and just wait and see their reactions. An 'idea' in chess is the equivalent of a hot tip in the stockmarket! Fischer realized the value of ideas, and he knew that ideas can come from the most unexpected of places. Often, after Fischer was already a world famous GM, he would spend an afternoon at one of the city chess clubs and watch the 'patzers' play chess and analyze their games: he was looking for ideas! He knew that not only GMs have ideas. His book '60 Memorable Games' is filled with recollections of the comments of normal club players.

Another possible substitute for a tutor is doing group work: get a group of 4-8 players together and start talking about chess, and take advantage of the opportunity to bring out your scorebook and show them your latest games! Once more: you are looking for ideas!

Q. When should a child begin formal training?

A. I am not really qualified to answer this question, though I can tell you of my experiences. First, age is not as important in chess as people make it to be. Some of the greatest names in chess history started when they were in their 20's. And many famous masters who had made a name for themselves when they were less than 10 never became world champion later in life. We often hear that the best age for a chess player is 28-30 years . We also hear that a chess players' skill declines after 40. (A book written by Canadian Mathematician Divinsky even will give you statistics to show you that this has a 'firm' basis.) However, when the 'individual' is considered (as opposed to a group of people ) then having a 'firm' statistical basis is not as relevant, and we find that there are so many exceptions to what we have been hearing ....

The truth is that very little scientific research on the effects of aging and mental capacity has been done, and much that has been published indicates that skill levels actually improve! In our case, chess, what does decline is 'performance' over time, and not ability to play . Take Smyslov as an example. He won the world championship in '57 when he was 36. But he only really started to play his 'best' chess when he was in his 60's!! Korchnoi is another example. Here is someone who most experts believe will die of old age and with his elo over 2600.

Everything is relative in life, and especially in chess. What is important is to be able to define just what your priorities in chess are. If you just want to have fun then who really needs the master title or a high rating?! If you want to compete for the city championship then the master title is an advantage and so is having a high rating. If you want to become world champion then don't start before you get the GM title!

But, to get back to the question, when is the best time for a child to begin to start playing? When the kid shows interest....not before. I would think that a child of 6 would be able to understand the basic ideas of chess. I have a 4 year old nephew, Mike, and for his 4th birthday I bought him one of those nice 'Bart Simpson' chess sets. He loves it, and loves to play 'chess'. Of course, he doesn't know the rules yet, (I am waiting for him to ask about rules) but this doesn't stop him from having fun moving the pieces around!

What ever the case and the age, I think that it is wrong to get children to play competitive chess until they are emotionally capable of doing so. There is so much pressure in tournament chess, winning or losing, that I think that parents have to be very careful. One of the things that I instinctively question about all of the 'sub' championships here in Canada (and in every other country, for that matter) is the wisdom of exposing children to competitive chess almost
immediately after learning the moves...

Q. Does speed chess help?

A. Speed chess is fun! And it allows you to play a zillion games in some afternoon...and so you can practice all of your favourite openings and get some feedback. Otherwise...speed chess is quite useless.

Fischer even said so many times, though it has to be noted that that didn't prevent him from playing it from time to time , and when he did he could devastate anyone! It is just that he didn't play it much. There is a famous story of Walter Browne (GM, 6-time US champion, and at one time one of the very best players in the world), when he was just becoming well known, of his attempts to get Fischer to play him blitz whenever he stopped by at the club in New York
(this was soon before Fischer became world champion).

Fischer kept refusing. Finally, one afternoon, fed up with Browne's never ending requests, he accepted to play but on three conditions: 1) only one game; 2) $20 each side, winner takes all; 3)Fischer gives a knight to Browne before play begins! (i.e. Fischer would give odds)

Browne accepted, thinking that after he wins the first game Fischer would want to take his revenge and play some more...it never even entered Browne's mind that he (a GM already) could lose to anyone in the world a Knight up before the game! They played a five-minute game and guess who won! Fischer. Browne never 'bothered' Fischer again.

I think that blitz doesn't do anything to develop skill, but I don't want to discourage anyone from
playing it. I think tournament players find it useful to release tension. What I think is bad for your chess is playing something called 'double-replacement'. It is a game void of anything that resembles what you can find in chess: tactics and strategy. I recommend to my students to stay away from it...even though I realize it is fun.

 

Q. What kind of exercises are useful for tactics, endgames, etc.

A. This is a very big question. And important. I've developed a number of different 'techniques' thru-out the years. Some of them are original, and some of them are not, and can be found in some books. I'll mention a couple of them here. But remember, what is important is trying them and seeing which ones work for you, and then concentrating on those particular ones.

First, something that you will not find in the books: you have to 'warm-up' before a game! Chess is a sport, and just as in tennis you have to warm up and get those 'muscles' ready. Now, what are some of the 'muscles' that are really important in chess: your eyes and your neck muscles. There are many exercises you can try to get them ready. One of my favourites is to sit down infront of a board an hour or so before the game, without any pieces, and without moving your neck look at each and every square on the board. Do this until you find that looking at a8 is just as comfortable as looking at e4. And try this for 5 to 10 minutes. After all, if you have to play a long game and your eyes and neck get tired then you are in trouble. There is another good reason for doing this: during the game if you move your neck to look from one side of the board to the other then you are telling your opponent just what you are looking at!

You have probably seen many Karpov pictures where he is 'staring' at his opponent...well what he is actually doing is watching his opponent while his opponent is considering his next move. (It has little real psychological value) By studying his opponent's neck movements (and especially eyes) he is able to understand what he is thinking about, about what piece he is thinking of moving, even about the plans of his opponent. Tal was also famous for his 'stares'. A lot of Russian players use this 'tactic', and if it disturbs their opponent...then that is a bonus! This exercise (the one I have suggested) is designed to make you a more difficult opponent to 'read'.

To improve tactics it is no secret that problem solving is beneficial (good old work) . When I have to train for a big tournament, about two weeks before it is scheduled to begin I start spending not less than 2 hours per day just solving problems. I divide the work into two parts. The first part I concentrate on speed of solution, and the next part I concentrate on accuracy, especially with respect to seeing all of the variations (and not just the main line). For the first part I try about 10-12 studies, I time myself with a clock, and I record the time for each solution in a log book. I don't care too much about side lines, or accuracy (I am really only interested in seeing the way to win in the principal line).

In the second part of this training, I may only try one problem if it is very difficult, and it may takeme a whole hour to solve (if I do) , but what I am looking for is completeness of solution. I also record my results in the log book, but I am very hard on myself: getting the solution is not important, for I subtract marks for missing some variation or some important idea. My experience has shown me that my speed of solution and accuracy of solution improve with practice. Two weeks for me is an optimum period that my experience has shown works best for me. What works for you is something that you can only know by experimentation....

On the day of a game I also try between 30 minutes to 1 hour of problem solving. I find that these problems right before the game really wake me up and get me ready to 'fight' as soon as I sit down at the board.

There is also training for different types of moves: I've noticed that many players are good at 'seeing' the ideas of their opponents when they are 'direct' moves: i.e., the pieces that are involved move in straight lines-Queens, Rooks, Bishops-but are less good at 'seeing' the threats of their opponents when they involve the Knight! This is because the knight moves in a circular, jumping fashion, and this is very different from the other pieces. So, I recommend for my students to practice studies that only have Knights and pawns on the board when they want to work on 'surprise' moves. After all, you are less likely to be surprised by a Queen move along a straight line than a Knight move coming out of nowhere. The Knight has an ability to move from one side of the board to the other that can only be described as 'mysterious'.

Remember, the most important quality/skill of any chess player is his ability to analyze positions. My experience has taught me that this ability is very much improved with regular practice. So, the more you practice it the better you will be able to analyze!

One other observation. There is a big difference between positions that arise in the middlegame compared to those that arise in the endgame: endgame positions are more difficult to analyze! This makes a lot of sense when you think about it for a while. Middle game positions have more pieces on the board, but there are fewer 'reasonable' candidate moves (i.e., fewer moves that don't lose material or are just plain stupid). And the large number of pieces cuts down on the movement of the others. Endgame positions have more 'open space' and fewer pieces, and hence fewer of the candidate moves are 'ridiculous'. There are simply more candidate moves, in general. This explains, partly, why some Rook and Pawn endings are the most complicated of all the endings that exist. This has led me to use 'endgame' studies as the most common type of study (as opposed to middlegame study) in my own training and the ones that I recommend to my students.

Q. Are training techniques different from country to country?

A. To some extent yes, but mostly for reasons of style and popularity. I have noticed that in some countries the players are predominantly tacticians (Spain, France, England, almost all South America) whereas other countries are predominantly strategic players (Portugal, Germany, Armenia,). But with respect to training techniques as a whole the spread of information and migration of trainers (especially Russian, and Bulgarian) has led to an understanding of the problems and solutions of training in chess that is more or less evenly spread throughout the world. But training is really a matter of 'what works for you may not work for someone else'.

And of course new training techniques are being developed all of the time. Sports' science is
evolving and with it we see some sports trying the techniques developed in other sports. Things are changing.

Russia (and the ex Soviet Union) developed most of the effective techniques in the chess world today. The old 'Russian School' is one example of this. Bulgaria also has its trainers, and methods, but are less popular and less known. I remember reading a book about techniques being developed in Bulgaria which put emphasis on the use of psychology for the development of the players involved. This was in the mid '80s. Today we can see such super stars as Topalov and Georgiev...have they being doing something different from what the Russians in the 'Russian School' have been doing? Probably. No matter what technique(s) you decide to use, you still need the old fashion elements of hard work and iron discipline to complement them.

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