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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Improving Your Chess for Free!

Lots of beginners ask what books or software they should buy, who they should take lessons from, or what other commercial materials might help their game. The truth is, nothing replaces cold, hard, studying, and there are infinite ways to study for no money.

Game databases. Want to know how to play your openings correctly? Download a pgn base of masters who play the openings, and go through the games meticulously. Find out what they do, and compare that to what you do. There are a ton of free databases online that feature GM games, opening principles, and famous matches. That’s the cream of the crop, there.

Download free software. Programs like Arena, ChessBase Light, Winboard, and SCID all allow you to study games with a very powerful engines, input your own games, create pgn bases and more. There’s no need to invest in Rybka or Fritz or anything else until you become a strong club player and even then, it really isn’t a hard rule. Free engines have been playing at the 2500 level or above for years and years; you really don’t need a 3300 rated engine to tell you that you made a beginner’s blunder. Trust me on that.

Analyze your own games. This one is a biggie. Without knowing what you, specifically, are doing wrong, there is little chance of improvement. We all start out by emulating our favorite masters but until we find our own groove, we are going to suffer many embarrassing losses. That’s just the way it is.

Play long games. I say this over and over, and I stand firm that it’s the best way to improve. Blitz and bullet are fun, but they simply cannot replace sitting for ten minutes analyzing all sorts of variations and plans in your head. Improving at long chess improves your quick chess, not the other way around. It hurts more to lose a game you’ve invested two hours in, believe me; it makes you want to improve. If the losses don’t hurt, then the wins don’t mean much, either. Right?

Isolate a complicated position and analyze the hell out of it. This is a lot of fun with a buddy in real life, but of course it can be done alone or online, as well. Play out every single variation you can come up with, and eventually you will completely understand the position and all its nuances. Then, you can move onto another position and do the same. Before you know it, your board vision and tactical eye will increase on its own through these exercises.

Finally, study tactics. There are myriad places online in which to do this, and paperback books which will greatly aid in this area can be purchased extremely cheaply. I recommend any of Fred Reinfeld’s books, as they can be taken anywhere and studied whenever you get a few free moments. While they are not technically “free”, they pay for themselves in short order, and so I’m including them in the category.

Putting in the work and the time on your own will improve your game much more thoroughly than simply purchasing materials and passively going through them. It’s easy to fall into the “Well, if I buy the chess stuff it has to be better than the free materials,” state of mind, but it simply isn’t true, not at the beginner to intermediate level. Just as studying the works of great painters can give you ideas, reading though other people’s chess materials and recommendations is more of a guide; in the end, it’s you who has to create your own chess self.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I want it NOW!

I am very highly involved in the chess community. From forums to game sites to news to local clubs and tourneys – I’ve been there, done that. In my years of chess pupilage, I have found a strange phenomenon to be true: Most newcomers to the game don’t actually want to learn it. They want to be handed knowledge and instantly become titled.

I suppose it’s the same with any facet of life, really. Novice welders want to work for the Union and make big money; a kid who just chucked his training wheels yesterday wants to race on the BMX track; the guy who graduates with a computer tech degree wants $100k a year immediately. No messing around. No blood, sweat, and tears. Just gimmie dat.

Well, it doesn’t work like that, friends and neighbors. If I had a nickel for every 1100-rated player who I’ve seen ask what it takes to become GM, I would have several thousand dollars by now. If I had a nickel for every 1100-rated player who has asked what books they should buy, I could probably retire. Are either of those questions bad, necessarily? Nope. The problem is that while it’s okay to dream and have a goal and wonder if we are studying the game properly, more important is to simply act. Do it.

Folks, there IS no magic formula to move you from complete novice to chess master in a few months. There is no secret lineup of specific books and videos you can watch that will improve your rating and skill level overnight. As a beginner, it’s far more important to soak up anything you can get your hands on about the game. Do you risk buying books that don’t specifically work for you? Yes. Do you run that same risk if five masters tell you the books they most love and recommend? Of course. What works for one may not work for another.

In our society of instant gratification, I see that chess is no different. Of course, I’m not saying that EVERY low-rated player who wonders what books to buy has the same attitude, because many of them don’t. For those of you who are actually, truly wondering how to improve, here are a few tried-and-true methods:

· PLAY. Not blitz, either; play chess. Play nice, long games, and then *really* go over them afterward. Losing or winning a game that you didn’t quite understand, and then just moving onto the next game, will not help you in the least. It won’t. Figure out WHY you won or lost. Figure out which blunder(s) were made during the game that conceded it to the other player. Do folks want to do this? Not many of them. Every time you play a game, whether you win or lose, you write a little part of a chess book: your own. Study it.
· Hire a chess coach. Hey, I know that “free” sounds better than spending money, but it’s one of the fastest ways to improve. Just about every IM and above has had some sort of coaching along the way. Probably most 2200s, too. You can read all the books and ask all the questions online you want, but without knowing what YOU, specifically, are doing right and wrong, improvement comes slow and hard.
· Read, read, read. Osmosis isn’t for people. Simply buying chess books, reading the first five pages of them, and then plopping them on the shelf isn’t going to do you any good. Read the damn things. Over and over, if you have to. I personally have no secret desire or expectation of becoming a master, so I’m not in the same position as the new players who want to dominate the world. I enjoy playing the game and picking up bits of information here and there which may improve it. Chess is still fun for me.
· Finally, *listen* to stronger players who try to help you. If you are a 1400 player and get free advice from a 2000 that you do not agree with, simply thank him for his time and move on. But that guy isn’t 2000 for no reason; he may know a thing or two about studying, preparation, openings, endings, and tactics. If you aren’t even willing to listen to answers, it may be best not to ask the question in the first place. Really.

Anyhow, I see I’m going on and on here, but I felt the issue needed to be addressed. Trust me, here, if you aren’t willing to put in a TON of work and time, chess greatness isn’t in your future. It just isn’t. If you want to play casual blitz, then do so! Just admit that freely, and accept it. There is nothing in the world wrong with doing so. But don’t play exclusively five-minute chess and then ask a strong player how to improve. He’ll simply tell you that you are doing it wrong, and that riles people up. Just blitz it, baby!

Also, gather all the information you can on which books are best to study, and then don’t buy any of them. That is what probably happens nine of ten times, anyhow. Taking time away from strong players who are willing to help, and then not acting on any of the advice, seems to be the new trend. Go for it!

Also, ask questions in forums like, “Who was better, Fischer or Kasparov?” which will net you some really valuable information. Another one that can really help you is, “Who was the best player of all time?” That one always produces nice, calm replies that can really help your game.

See where I’m going with this? Do it or don’t, it’s completely up to you.