What Should I Study?

The most frequent question I am asked by parents and beginning players is, “What do I need to do to learn chess (or, become a strong player)? For a good time I suggest play as often against good players as possible, or study lots of puzzles so as to learn your tactics. With time however I realized that developing a methodical system was required. As a collector of chess books (over 4,000 of them) I pondered this. There are more books on openings and beginning chess than all other aspects of the game combined. Is this a hint?

Then, while reading World Champion Jose Capablanca’s book Chess Fundamentals, something clicked. Chapter one, The Importance of the endgame, something struck me. Capablanca wrote:

In learning to play chess well it is helpful to divide the game into three parts, to wit: the opening, the middlegame and the ending. Each one of these parts is intimately linked with the others, and it would be a grave mistake to study the opening without keeping in mind the subsequent middlegame and ending. In the same way it would wrong to study the middlegame without studying endgame. This reasoning clearly proves that in order to improve your game you must study the endgame before anything else; for, whereas the endings can be studies and mastered by themselves, the middlegame and the opening must be studied in relationship to the ending.

I then started learning that due to market forces EVERY new player thinks a beginning book or an opening is for them as ALL chess games start at the same beginning position. Easier for the student, easier for the author – especially with computers. The reality is that only a small fraction of those books really are any good…not to mention that most endings are boring to many players.

Obviously we must first learn the very basics first: names and moves of the pieces, who moves first, the setup and what is a win or tie, etc. I then stress six or seven concepts the apply to virtually all openings. After that it is time to move onto endgames – basic checkmates: K & Q vs K, K & R (or two) vs K, two Bishops vs K and so one. We then need to start understanding rook and pawning endings. After this we can introduce equivalent middlegame and opening concepts. Then go back to endings at a higher level, planning (which is required at all levels) and repeat.

A major fallacy with the general public is that the key to good chess players is memory. To this end many players try to memorize their openings to a high degree. The only problem is that most of my opponents are not considerate enough to play the moves I have just memorized. Top grandmasters are condemned to memorize, ordinary players must first understand why certain position require specific methods of handling.

One of the best ways of understanding chess is to work on puzzles. This may involve endgame puzzles or tactical ones. Fred Reinfeld who has a poor reputation for his rehashed opening books and general treatises produced some wonderful puzzle books

It is important to remember that one must combine study with practice to attain the best results. This can happen in tournaments, but also in semi-casual games. A key factor is to play opponents who are stronger and yourself – and try to get them to review the game with you. Try to find the answers on your own, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. Above all try to give your best in every game and don’t try to use what you know are trappy cheap shots just because they look good or because you “hope” they will work – a surefire way to lose games. Many players benefit by playing computers or on line. I shared a room with GM Igor Ivanov at a tournament and between rounds we would head up to the room and play five-minute chess. Knowing that if I played conservatively he would demolish me (he was rated 2600+ and I was low 2200) I played a lot of second rate tactical chess with little shots in them – and lost every game…maybe 25 or so. Finally, Igor, who really did look like a Russian Bear, hit the table with so much force as to cause the pieces to scatter throughout the room and he yelled, “How can I teach you ANYTHING when you play such stupid chess?” Much abashed I cleaned up my game and played the way I tell my students to. In the next 20 or so games I got a few draws and one win.

Lastly let’s look at camps and private tutoring. The main downside here is the cost. Private lessons will cost from $10 an hour to over $100 an hour with usual weekly or bi-weekly lessons depending on local and age of the teacher. Benefits CAN include having a strong player who you can develop a beneficial relationship and the instruction being tailored to the needs of the student. In discussing lessons have a good dialogue about what you are after and what the coach expects and recommends.

For camps there are both day-camps and sleep over camps. Cost vary widely – I’ve found the sleepover camps are expensive but usually worth while. Often there you will find the faculty include high level GMs and some of the top scholastic players in the country. The players also build very good friendships and get to pick each others’ brains. For me the social aspects of chess are among its greatest draws

Following is a small number of books that I recommend for beginning and intermediate players of all ages.

Essential Chess Endings by Yuri Averbach

Silman’s Endgame Course By Jeremy Silman (Very understandable endgame textbook – a little easier than the Lev Alburt book)

Just the Facts by Lev Alburt (an excellent beginning and intermediate ending book)

Chess Tactics by Fred Reinfeld (An introductory puzzle book thematically organized)

1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate by Fred Reinfeld (puzzles of checkmates)

1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations (Tactical Puzzles thematically organized)

Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess by Bobby Fischer (An excellent beginners’ book with a diagram for each puzzle and interesting observations from his career)

By: Robert B. Tanner, NTD, NM


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