Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Blogservations on Trainers and Training

Via His Best Friend (who hasn't posted since Sep. 4 without explanation--we miss you, man!) I saw this column by NYC newspaper guy and GM Andy Soltis.

CHESS teachers are masters of the maxim. For everyone trying to play better, they offer age-old bits of wisdom. Among them:

"To improve, you first must study the endgame. It's the most important part of the game."

"The key to the middlegame is learning the art of long-range planning and strategy."

"To play the opening well is a matter of 100 percent understanding and zero percent memorization. Never memorize."

The trouble with these pious pronouncements is none are true.

Why? First, virtually the only games that are decided by endgame skill are those played by masters.

On the rare occasions when 1200-rated players reach the ending, one of them is usually a rook ahead. Learning the differences between the Lucena and Philidor positions in rook endgames, for example, is of little value.

Second, most games played below the 1800 level are won and lost by tactics, not strategy or planning. Leaning more about tactical patterns is of much greater benefit to the student.

And depending on which opening you want to play, memorization can be very valuable. Masters memorize all the time - then tell you not to do it.

There's a lot of food for thought here, but eating this thoughtful food served to remind me that I noted a long time back that there have been individuals like Rolf Wetzell and Michael de la Maza who have used quite different methods to achieve big ratings jumps, as adults, in relatively short amounts of time. Soltis makes some good points, but saying that chess teachers are "Masters of Deceit" (a riff on this book?) is just hyperbole to get the attention of the jaded NYC newspaper consumer.

Here's my bottom line; a good chess coach/trainer must first understand the goals and objectives of each individual student in chess, must then design a specific training program to meet these individual goals, must understand the student's learning style, character, strengths and weaknesses, and must then follow up with encouragement and/or kicks to the arse as appropriate to move the student in the right direction.

Some 1800-rated players, for example, do need to memorize some opening sequences, while some need to get off openings completely for awhile and study attacking chess; others in the same rating range will have other weaknesses. The proven method of improvement is to improve your weak points first, as in a complex system like chess you can only steer the game into your strengths in a limited portion of the games played. If you only like to attack, the opponent will seek to trade to an endgame, and if you're a "positional" player, sure as hell most of the time the other guy will try to be "tactical."

In sum, there is no magic bullet, no formula, no cookie-cutter approach that stamps out good chess players!

I don't have a trainer, but I'm sure having a good one would be of assistance in moving up the ratings ladder; however, reviewing the requirements to be good in the field make it certain that there aren't that many really good ones, and that I'll just have to keep doing it on my own. Wetzell and de la Maza showed that self-training can still pay big dividends, so I'm going to soldier on.


chessloser said...

yeah, i read that article, it kind of motivated me, made me feel like i could actually learn and improve, that i wasn't missing something everyone else had...

the big thing about having a trainer, i think, is someone who can answer your questions, like "do i take the knight or bishop, do i move the pawn or not?" then you understand what is the best move and why, and can apply that to your chessplaying... sadly, books can't answer questions...

Anonymous said...

I still want to see that chess boot camp, with pictures of you guys dropping from exhaustion after tactical exercises. You just can't get the same kick from self-training. (Unfortunately, I'm not in your neck of the woods, so cannot attend).