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Becoming a Master

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Reflections on Becoming a Master Player

originally posted to Chesstalk , February 8, 2000

by Kevin Spraggett

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INTRODUCTION
CAN ANYONE BECOME A MASTER LEVEL CHESS PLAYER?
GETTING ONE'S PRIORITIES STRAIGHT
SAVE YOURSELF TIME
AVOID THE INFORMATION TRAP

PROGRESS
WHAT IS THE LEVEL OF A CHESS MASTER?
BOARD CONTROL AND MASTERY
WHAT ELSE CAN REALLY HELP ME TO IMPROVE MY PLAY?
WHAT IS A 'CRITICAL' POINT IN CHESS?
IT IS GETTING LATE, QUICKLY GIVE ME SOME TIPS
ANY LAST WORDS ABOUT TIME TROUBLE

 

INTRODUCTION

Several months ago Dat Nguyen wrote a really interesting email asking about an 'optimized' program for becoming a strong chess player, and this attracted my attention. I decided to start working on putting together such a program, doing research, and soon found that I simply didn't have the time to complete the whole project in less than 6 months.

Tackling the whole question of achieving master level chess from a 'minimum information' point of view is a very important question today. I remember years ago when I was still a 'patzer' (some might still think I am...) and my sparring partner was my brother Jim, he once mused about being able to buy a book 'How to become a chess master over the weekend'. Unfortunately such a book does not exist, and probably will never be written!

Perhaps in 6 months or so when I will have completed my work I will publish it here, or perhaps I will just wait until I publish a book...you will find it interesting.

However, since you are seeking some advice on how to go about becoming a master level player, and I have an hour or two to spare this evening, let me give you some 'classical' advice that might make your journey a little shorter.

CAN ANYONE BECOME A MASTER LEVEL CHESS PLAYER?

Yes, and if we are not considering the obstacles that might get in the way, why not? Some of the most 'hopeless' beginners have done it!

GETTING ONE'S PRIORITIES STRAIGHT

So you want to become a master chess player, do you? The BIG question you should ask is NOT 'How long does it take?' but 'WHY DO I WANT TO BECOME A MASTER?'

If you can not answer that convincingly then give up the task right now! But if you can, and if you have GOOD reasons to motivate you enough to want to try, then by all means proceed! The real challenges on the way to become a master test your strength of character more than they test your chess skill! Motivation, willpower, discipline, perseverance,...that is what I am referring to. Becoming a chess master has to be IMPORTANT to you, otherwise the whole exercise is a waste of your time.

The road to chess mastery has many twists and bumps, and if you are not willing to work very hard then you will never do it. Being able to work hard at chess is much more important than than having lots of talent.

And did I say DIFFICULT? Yes, chess is more difficult than it is fun!

The second big question, 'How long does it take?' has just one honest answer: you will know when you get there!

SAVE YOURSELF TIME

Be organized! Keep a log of your studywork. It only takes a few moments to write down a few words of what you did on such and such an afternoon. After a few months you can look back and get a good idea of what is working and what is not.

Steinitz said that it is much better to work one hour a day for six days than for six hours on one day and nothing for the other five! He is right! Create a training/study schedule and try to stick with it...

I suggest training sessions to be not less than two hours each, and preferably not when you are tired. Concentration and focus are difficult when you don't have much energy.

And try to study in peace and quiet, without the television on. Listening to some soothing music is a good idea, but no noise: the brain will absorb a lot more when you are kind to it!


AVOID THE INFORMATION TRAP

You become a chess master by gradually improving your playing level. You go from level to level...each level may be perceived as requiring a little more information, and even a slightly different type of information.

Many players 'choke' at a certain level and have difficulties getting to the next because they have too much information in their heads! They get confused...remember that in chess what is important is the APPLICATION of information, not the ABSORPTION of information.

Lasker once wrote that he had been playing chess all of his life, and that for the last 25 years of it he had actually tried to FORGET most of the information he had acquired ! He found it hurt him more than it helped him! (As I will point out soon, what is important is acquiring techniques and methods)

With this in mind, limit the number of books you have until you become a master! You don't need very many, as Tom has already pointed out (though I think about 20 would be a reasonable level). Magazines are fine.

With respect to computer chess, maybe I will mention playing -programs later, but no one needs 2 million games! I remember once having dinner with Lombardy and several amateurs down in New York one evening. One of the amateurs mentioned that he had 1.3 million games at home on his computer, and Lombardy looked at him and asked him how many of that 1.3 million games had he worked through so far...(!?)...the amateur got the point!

Limit the number of opening systems you play. You only need one good defense against e4, one against d4, and one against the rest of the family. With white you stick to just one opening...if you have time to learn more (and you don't mind putting in the extra hours) then do so, but remember that chess is a game of 'application' , not 'absorption'. You can only make one move at a time...so keep things SIMPLE.

PROGRESS

Another way to look at improving at chess is to consider the complete beginner: he knows nothing at all. Zero. I don't like the 'empty book' analogy, and prefer the 'lost' analogy: the beginner seeks direction.

The beginner 's progress up the ladder will leave him with 'scars' later on in life if he doesn't approach the learning process the right way. Let me be specific.

The beginner's progress to master level is done in essentially two 'steps'--the first step is to achieve a basic minimum understanding of the game ( a sort of chess consciousness or awareness) characterized by a deliberate lack of specific chess information, and the second step is developing into a master level player by the acquiring of fundamental techniques and methods through the exposure of proper amounts of information.

The first step (achieving a basic minimum understanding of the game) is very similar to our first steps in learning how to drive a bicycle: the most progress is achieved by learning what NOT to do. In chess this means keeping things very simple: learning not to leave your king exposed, being aware of your opponent's immediate threats, not putting your pieces 'en prise', developing rapidly and efficiently your pieces in the opening, not creating weaknesses...only the most 'intuitive' concepts of the importance of the centre and the basic elementary tactics should be touched on.

But no books! Or atleast, no 'formal' chess books: the beginner has to be able to develop an awareness ,on his own, of why he loses games. He has to be aware of the bad habits that contribute to his defeats. He needs to develop an intuitive idea of chess.

Most beginner chess books have the wrong approach: do this, don't do that, beware of this, and that sort of 'Reinfeld' psyche. Rules , Rules, and more Rules.

Wrong approach: rules replace understanding.

One or two books that give basic games with simple explanations is excellent. One book that I recommend is Chernevs 'Chess Move by Move'. This gem of a book explains each move in the most simple, intuitive terms. No variations, no strategy (only the most basic)

But no strategy books, no opening books, nothing 'formal'. Chess information has to be kept to a minimum, because we are seeking to learn not by acquiring ways to win, but by becoming aware of how to avoid doing 'stupid' things by an intuitive approach.

On the road to achieving this basic minimum level of understanding, playing is very important. (We are very far from the tournament level here) The beginner needs to play against stronger players than himself so that he can get instant feedback on what he does wrong, and develop a one to one understanding between his mistakes and his losses. It really serves no purpose to the beginner to play people he can beat because unless your opponent is stronger than you the errors you make will probably go unnoticed.


One thing that I have to re-emphasize here before moving on is that the beginner has to develop the habit of paying attention to all of his opponent's threats. The beginner must , before he makes any move, ask himself about his opponent's threat! He must develop this habit until it becomes a part of him. For if a chess player does not see his opponent's threats then it doesn't matter how much information, how many techniques and methods he has acquired: he will lose always. Much the same way as we are taught to look both ways before we cross the street and do so unconsciously later in life (it being drilled into us when we are young) so must the beginner ask himself before he makes a move 'what are my opponent's immediate threats'



One last point on step one: it is difficult to always find an adversary who is stronger than you and from whom you can learn in the post game discussion. This is clear. But, it is very important to understand that the amount of time you actually stay in this stage (of a beginner's development) is linked to the amount of time you don't waste by playing weaker players.

I am a very firm believer that the old masters of 500 years ago (ie Ruy Lopez, Damiano, etc) knew what they were saying when they offered the advice of not playing weaker opponents!

Step two (after the player has actually achieved a type of chess consciousness) is very different from the first step because here the chess player begins to improve his game primarily by the acquisition of techniques and methods (ie as opposed to learning what not to do he begins to learn what to do ). This is the chief characteristic of the learning process at this point, and continues until he achieves master level. Here specific chess information is important.

The player begins to learn by 'applying' relevant information. Here the practice of the player is concerned chiefly with trying out newly acquired techniques and methods. Therefore, it is not as critical for him to play consistently stronger opposition (though that is always a plus)

In this stage the 'strength' of the player develops: it can be thought of as consisting of three elements: 1) natural ability
2) acquired techniques and methods
3) information and knowledge

It is at this stage that the player should enter tournament chess. Note also, that it is this stage that is of longer duration.

WHAT IS THE LEVEL OF A CHESS MASTER?

I don't want to deal with elo's and other number systems. Let me stick with ideas.

A chess master is a very competent player who has not only achieved the firm UNDERSTANDING that the game of chess is actually a series of 'mini-games' (ie opening, middlegame, endgame) , each with its own very distinct characteristics, but has also achieved the ABILITY to construct his own chess game from these very same elements.

Put in another manner, the chess master can not just 'take apart' a game of chess and reduce it to its most basic elements, but he can use these very same elements and 'put them together' to make a whole game.

In other words, a master has a very high level of technical skill, coupled with a one to one correspondence between his understanding and his playing level.

BOARD CONTROL AND MASTERY

It has always surprised me how little time books spend explaining the importance of the chessboard in itself. It has an importance more than just being the 'table' onwhich the game takes place...

Knowing the characteristics of the board is extremely important. Books spend too much time on the pieces, not realizing that much is missed by neglecting a closer study of the relationship of the board with each separate piece.

Lasker wrote that many of the mistakes a chessplayer makes could be avoided if he understood the chessboard better. Let me elaborate.

A lot of players have difficulty visualizing a chess board. You can ask them to close their eyes and then quiz them on squares (what colour they are), on diagonals( what squares are attached to them), files, etc. My experience as a trainer is that many players have difficulty doing so.

This is compounded by the popularly held belief that it is unimportant...

But it is important because of how the brain works! The thinking process in chess involves the use of our eyes as well as our ''mind's eye''. Our mind's eye sees the board in a different way, as it can not 'visulalize' the board as a whole it must break the board down into components, with each component being geometrically related to the others.

If we haven't consciously understood the geometry of the board sufficiently and all of the implications with respect to each and every piece, then our mind's eye ( our way of imagining the board) will not appreciate the whole board, and hence certain tactical oversights may go unnoticed.

For instance, how often do we hear the stories of our chess friends explaining to us why they lost such and such a game...they had it all 'figured out', and then at the last moment (too late to help them) they noticed that the piece they wanted to move to such and such a square just couldn't do it. (it being an illegal move)

There are many such stories. And they come down to the same thing.

In the '80's appeared a new generation of chess stars from the Soviet Union who created quite a splash, not so much because they were such fantastic players, but because of what they did at the chess board: they spent more time looking at the cieling ( or the spectators) than they did at the chessboard.

I remember the first time I played Shirov. It was '90, Paris, and I was paired against this relatively unknown youngster from Latvia. I played my normal game, and was quite astonished when I noticed that he would only look at the board from time to time, and that most of the time he spent staring at the cieling! I still remember thinking that there was something quite wrong with the fellow! ''I will have no problem with this fellow'' I thought.

But was I amazed by what this guy ''saw''!! I still am impressed.

He was combining the usual 'visual' chess thinking with , what for lack of a better word, 'blindfold' chess thinking, and the results were very impressive. Even to this day he employs this technique.

Other players of his generation who did this also are Ivanchuk, and Gelfand. But it is a mistake to think that these players just 'happened' upon this new technique: it was a technique developed by Soviet trainers looking for a way for the new generation of young players to get an edge on the existing generations.

Today perhaps Anand is the most visable exponent of this 'school'...

There are many things you don't 'see' in chess which you do 'see' when you close your eyes, and of course, the reverse is equally true. I suggest you try some experiments!


There are a whole slew of exercises you can use to improve your 'awareness' of the board.
Start with an empty board. Put a knight on the board, say on a1.

Did you know already that to get to b2 takes as much time for the knight as it takes for it to reach the 8th rank?? (Four moves)

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It is certainly not intuitive, but that is because it has to do with the unique characteristics of the board and the knight.

Then try exercises with combinations of pieces, such as Q and R or Q and B.
Notice that the Queen can not capture either piece on an empty board. But it can capture a knight on an empty board!

Pursuing this line of investigation, you quickly become aware that for the Queen to capture the Rook or the Bishop the concept of a 'double attack' takes on significance. This then leads to the


It is worth the effort to develop your own exercises for improving your board control and mastery. Practice a little every week. Try closing your eyes and notice what you 'see'. Do this for five minutes and then open your eyes and take a look at the board. Do you see any differences? You should...

I believe that there are dividends to be gained by combining the two.

WHAT ELSE CAN REALLY HELP ME TO IMPROVE MY PLAY?

Appreciate the importance of counterplay in ANY TYPE of position.

I've read virtually all of the main 'classics' of chess strategy and tactics, of theories of how to play chess (Steinitz, Lasker, Nimzovich) and the value of positional chess, and I have to agree with gm Mikhail Suba (Romania) when he says that all of those great players and teachers forgot one important thing: CHESS IS A DYNAMIC GAME!

If your position is solid, but passive, the chances are that you will lose in the long run. Lasker taught that there is no reason to lose a fundamentally sound position, if you don't make any unforced mistakes, but when he taught this the 'average' club player had very little technique. Nowadays technique has evolved to the point that even club players have knowledge of existing techniques applicable for many types of positions.

'Getting ground down' is one of the principal causes of 'death' in chess today!

From my own experience I can vouch for Suba's observation. A sound, but passive position is a good starting point to find reasons for your losing the game! You will never catch Kasparov in a sound but passive position...he would much prefer an inferior position with some little counterplay!

Infact, studying Kasparov's games is a good lesson in the importance of counterplay. It would not be far from the truth if I were to argue that the only good reason he wrestled away Karpov's crown was because Karpov underestimated the importance of every position having an element of counterplay. In the long matches that they held together for the world title the same story would appear on the board time and again: Karpov trying his ''boa constrictor-give me a slight edge and then I will squeeze them to death'' approach to chess versus Kasparov's ''I am happier in an inferior position with some 'poison' in it''. Who won is now history.

Stay away from passive but solid positions. Think dynamically! Be prepared to play positionally inferior positions that offer some chances of counterplay . Often even a little bit of counterplay will save the day.

Don't let your opponent 'technique' you! Go down in a fight, not in a coma...

In fact, if you can get hold of Suba's 'Dynamic Chess' then buy two copies!

WHAT IS A 'CRITICAL' POINT IN CHESS?

This is a concept that has been very little dealt with in chess literature, but is quickly becoming one of the most important ideas in modern chess. One theory that is gaining credibility is the concept that even though a decision process is required for every move the outcome of any particular game is really decided by the quality of decisions at certain points during a game. These are referred to as critical points.

A normal game has usually two or three such points. The hard part is actually RECOGNIZING when a critical point arises, not actually making the correct decision.

Critical points are positions where the decision you make will affect the game for a very long time, having lasting influence for many moves in the future. For instance, when you determine the formation of your pawn structure, or an exchange of a key piece. Most 'every day ' decisions don't carry this kind of responsibility.

But making the wrong decision at one of these socalled critical points can actually lose you the game: try as you may you will not be able to 'repair' the damage done .

Given the very big increase of technique in chess, and its incorporation into even club players' play, it is to be expected that our notion of modern chess is changing. Many today look upon chess as a game where it is the timing of your decisions (ie critical points) that affects the outcome.

The socalled 'Dorfman Theory' is built around the recognition of critical points. Unfortunately, as this web page does not allow for diagrams, I can not give you any examples to illustrate what I mean.

However, I do suggest that you try to find some literature on critical points. It is a concept that may actually help you gain a lot of rating points!

IT IS GETTING LATE, QUICKLY GIVE ME SOME TIPS

Don't waste your time during a game, be practical. In chess the important thing is to apply what you know, and to do so without concern about the result of the game. Losing is not the worse thing that can happen to you! If you see a good move, a good idea, then play it. Don't spend mountains of time trying to 'figure everything out'. Two hours is not a long period of time. Perfectionists die young in chess.

Also, related to this , it is important to understand that during a game of chess we do not learn things...we apply things we know (I keep stressing this). You learn at home, when you are in the peace and security of familar surroundings and have the time to carefully take a look at everything. Make sure that you understand in your own mind that a game of chess seen at home is very different from a game of chess in the tournament.

Another important thing to think about is the socalled 'slump' in chess. All sports players fall into slumps, it is something that sports psychologists have noticed and have studied.

When you get into a slump ride it out! Don't change too much what you are doing ( probably the slump has nothing to do with you doing anything wrong). Don't think of giving up chess, and don't do anything drastic. The hall marks of a chess player's character ( discipline, perseverance, motivation, etc) are very sorely tested in slumps.

My own experience is that slumps make players stronger.

ANY LAST WORDS ABOUT TIME TROUBLE

While it is something we consider as a bad habit, it more often than not is a characteristic of a really strong player. It is hard to give any serious, useful advice for this 'problem'. 'Move faster' has been known to miss the mark!

What I suggest is that the player learn to deal with his 'habit' by finding more time elsewhere: maybe move faster in the opening, think more on your opponent's time, and what not. Many players have 'overcome' chronic timetrouble, but most have to learn to live with it.


That is all for now folks, I am going to bed!


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