Category Archives: Improvement

Insights to help you win more games.

How to Defeat a Superior Opponent! Advice for New Chess Players, Part 2

If you read my earlier post on Edmar Mednis, you know that How to Defeat a Superior Opponent is the title of the Hall of Fame Grandmaster’s 1989 book (effectively a reprint of his 1978 title How to Beat the Russians).

The idea of defeating a stronger player appealed to a “weakie” like me, so I devoured Superior Opponent in my early years. Unfortunately, I did not score upsets that often…

But over the years I learned a lot. Now that I have more experience, I’ll give you some of my own advice on beating players better than you.

 

Good psychology only goes so far.

I’m not going to insult your intelligence by telling you there is a formula to consistently beat players rated 500 points higher than you. Exception: anything goes if we’re talking about players rated under 1000.

The tips I’ll discuss can give you a slightly better chance against such opposition, but luck is your best friend here: hope the opponent underestimates you, miscalculates something, or has a bad game.

If you are a massive underdog, just play the best moves you can … for as long as you can … and don’t get too far behind on the clock. This last guideline is important: an experienced, higher-rated player will just keep the game going in your time pressure, shuffling pieces until you collapse.

For the rest of these tips, I’m going to assume you’re facing someone rated 1000+ and roughly 200 points higher than you. This is a steep hill, but not an impossible one: statistically you should score about 25% against such a player (one win and three losses in four games, or two draws and two losses).

For context, with a 300-point rating difference you’re expected to score 1 point out of 10.

 

Don’t change your playing style.

You have certain strengths as a chess player. Don’t abandon your strongest weapons based on who you’re paired against. If you’re an attacker, attack. If you’re a good endgame player, trade. If you know a certain opening well, play it — don’t be afraid of the opponent knowing it better than you do. Sidebar: targeting the weaknesses of a peer or an inferior opponent is often a good idea!

 

Believe in your ideas, and don’t try too hard.

It’s tempting to make “extra” efforts to beat stronger players, but I think the best you can do in this area is to make sure your concentration is as good as it can be for the game.

If you think you’ve found a good move or plan, and don’t see any flaws, go for it. Maybe you’re wrong and missed something, but don’t assume this is the case! That’s called “seeing ghosts.”

 

Calculate until the evaluation is clear.

chess symbols

The most common chess evaluation symbols, for moves and positions. Image: lichess.org

If you’re a good calculator, this is not a problem. For others, like me, calculation is not our strong suit.

Don’t go crazy trying to see everything till the end, unless mate or a decisive material balance is at stake. Otherwise, just use the Chess Informant classification that I discussed previously.

 

Don’t offer draws to higher-rated players.

I’m not one of those coaches who says you should always “play till bare kings!” There are a number of situations in which offering or accepting a draw makes sense, or when aiming for a more drawish position is a good idea.

However, there is almost never a good reason to offer a draw to a higher-rated player. There are two rather obvious reasons for this:

If you have the advantage, you shouldn’t be offering a draw! Doing so communicates fear and increases the confidence of your opponent, who might be on the ropes. If you’re really afraid of messing up when better against a higher-rated, you can play solidly and safely, avoiding risk. Just strike a confident pose at the board while doing so!

If you are worse — or even equal — your opponent won’t accept your draw offer. Moreover, it again shows weakness. Whether your opponent is torturing you or merely shuffling pieces back and forth, just keep finding the best moves you can while not showing any frustration. Imagine you are at a picnic on a warm summer day!

Wait for the higher-rated player to offer the draw (or, if you’re playing against a peer, the player with the superior position has the “right” to make the peace offering). Only when you’re playing against a lower-rated player can you offer a draw in an inferior position.

 

Experienced players: are there any other general tips I didn’t mention? Leave a comment!

Chess Position Evaluation: Who is better, and by how much?

Chess Informant popularized a classification system that is now universally used in chess literature and when discussing positions. Who is better, and by how much?

When I was struggling to learn chess, I didn’t really feel what these meant. Now, I hope others will be a bit less confused!

This is a short post, and I’m not giving any positions here: but use these guidelines the next time you study a chess position — I think you’ll have an “A Ha!” moment.

Of course, I’m only talking about human evaluation during a chess game! I only care about what the computer says in ICCF games.

 

White/Black has a decisive advantage

An unstoppable attack; too much extra material without compensation; an opponent with hopelessly bad pieces; or an endgame edge so big the win is straightforward.

 

White/Black has a large advantage

This is the most important category!

I would define it as any of the above, but to a lesser degree — a dangerous attack that isn’t clearly winning; an extra pawn or exchange with the opponent having some form of compensation; awkward but not hopeless pieces; or a solid endgame edge that still requires decent technique.

Two or three of these smaller edges together can be considered a decisive advantage. This is what I believe is meant by the so-called “accumulation of advantages.”

This category is much closer to decisive advantage than to small advantage! When you get your opponent here, your advantage will likely grow if you simply suppress any counterplay.

 

White/Black has a small advantage

A lead in development, space (more central presence, control of an open file), pawn structure (lack of pawn weaknesses, or less than the opponent has), or piece placement (in the center or near the “action zone”). Two or three of these together can add up to a large advantage.

 

The position is equal

The chances are balanced, and if both sides play well, a draw is the likely result. Be careful: this doesn’t necessarily mean the position is dry or boring! Usually, you need to play actively. Simply shuffling your pieces around and waiting is usually a recipe for disaster.

 

The position is unclear

You can think a position is unclear or “I don’t know what’s going on,” but this isn’t helpful. Decide on one of the categories above, and also decide if you will play for a win or a draw.

 

Good luck in your chess evaluations!

Advice for New Chess Players, Part 1: General Tips

No matter why you decided to pick up chess, Congratulations, and Welcome!

I played my first chess tournaments in 1995-96. While I started teaching beginners as early as 1997 (when I was not much past 1000 USCF), I didn’t become a full-time chess teacher and coach until 2005 (I had surpassed 1800 by then).

I’ve seen and learned a great deal over the years, and I’d like to share some of my best advice.

 

How you perform against friends and family means nothing.

Just because you can beat your dad, your friends, or your co-workers in chess says absolutely nothing about how well or poorly you play the game. The only way to know where you stand in the pecking order is to play in official (rated) tournaments. And no, online ratings don’t mean anything either, whether you play on ICC, lichess, or anywhere else. Online is just practice.

 

Expect to lose a lot of games. A lot.

No one becomes a strong chess player without losing hundreds, no, thousands, of games. People who say otherwise are lying. The sooner you accept this, the better off you’ll be.

Related to this: genius is exceedingly rare in chess. Unless your name is Kasparov, Anand, Kramnik, or Ivanchuk, you are not a chess genius and your kid isn’t either. If someone tells you otherwise, they’re only after your money.

 

Academic achievement and chess aptitude? Probably unrelated.

I’ve already written about this here. I’m not a scientist or a researcher, but have worked with thousands of students over the years, age 3 and up.

 

Endgames are overrated.

Most games between non-experts (97+% of the chess population!) will be decided before the endgame is reached. You should know some basics, but don’t spend more than 20-25% of your study time on this phase of the game.

 

Openings are underrated.

Don’t listen to people who advise you to ignore openings! Effective opening study is well worth your time, even as a new player.

The opening gets a bad rap because it is often presented very poorly. That’s the fault of the material, not the phase of the game itself! I recently reviewed a book that presents the opening pretty well for inexperienced players.

I have also long believed that openings can drive your rating improvement, in large part because so many of your adversaries are too lazy to work at it.

 

Don’t Worship Your Chess Engine!

You can’t play like a chess computer 100% of the time, so a lot of its post-mortem suggestions will not help you in real life.

 

Experienced players: are there any other general tips I didn’t mention? Leave a comment!

French Defense, Part 4: Steiner Variation

A Resource for Chess Francophiles

The Centre Pompidou in Paris. Photo: Andre Harding

About a year ago, I wrote a multi-part series on the French Defense (first part here), the opening that I often cite as having saved my chess career. I played it from 1998-2008, and would not have reached 1900+ without it.

Subsequent parts of my series can be found here: 2a2b, 2c, and 3.

While not a complete survey, I think it gives the aspiring Frenchie enough to get started. Anti-Frenchies should take a look as well.

 

Endre Steiner

Endre Steiner (1901-1944)

Recently, I received a donation from NYC-area chess coach Nikki Church (thanks, Nikki!). When I asked her if she had any topic requests, she asked me what to do about annoying sidelines such as 2.c4 in the French, apparently called the Steiner Variation. Her students like to play this against her, and it proves once again that the French is an opening people either love or hate. There’s little in-between!

So, it seemed I would have to revive my series! I promised Nikki I would inflict some pain on her students’ schemes!

Let’s start!

 

French Defense, Steiner Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.c4

My feeling is this move should be a welcome sight! I believe black should play 2…d5, preparing to exchange center pawns and liberate the pieces, especially our light-squared bishop.

Well, not so fast. The challenge is that we won’t end up in a very French-like position after the following moves … and I know French players can be very formulaic …

Variation A: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.cxd5 exd5

Variation B: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.exd5 exd5

Variation C: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.e5

Variation D: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.d4

 

A: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.cxd5 exd5

Now there are two main choices — A1: 4.Qa4+ and A2: 4.exd5.

A1: 4.Qa4+

As a cautionary tale, the great Savielly Tartakower was barbecued by Endre Steiner himself!

Ugh. This kind of game sends shivers down the spine of a French devotee, as we’ve all had accidents like this! Nevertheless, I have a few points to make.

FIrst, I think 4…Bd7 was already dubious, in light of the strong reply 5.Qb3! This compelled the awkward 5…Bc6, making the cleric a bystander from early on.

I would prefer 4…Qd7, or even 4…Nd7 5.exd5 Nf6 followed by …Bd6 or …Bc5 and kingside castling.

I really did not like 7…Nfd7?! I mean, just look at that queenside! I think 7…Ne4 was already forced.

After 8.Qg3! Tartakower’s position was critical, and Steiner was off to the races.

 

Moshe Czerniak showed a simple and good way to deal with white’s play:

 

A2: 4.exd5

Against this, the French player has to be comfortable developing their pieces to more aggressive posts than usual. I know from experience that such “comfort” is not a given. Still, it’s the only way.

If you don’t believe me, would you trust Viktor Kortschnoj? Against ex-World Champion Boris Spassky?

Let’s move on.

 

B: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.exd5 exd5

This doesn’t really have independent value. 4.cxd5 transposes to A2, and 4.d4 is not part of the Steiner Variation, it transposes to the Exchange Variation covered in Part 3.

 

C: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.e5

White’s most challenging lines against the French mainlines involve squeezing the second player with an eventual e4-e5 advance, clogging up kingside development. With the black king knight barred from f6, there’s always danger of a strong attack.

So why not use this idea in the Steiner Variation as well?

I think this is a sensible approach by white. I would advise black to play 3…c5 gaining space in the center and preparing to develop in a similar fashion to the Advance Variation.

You could do a lot worse than emulate the play of GM Schmidt:

That leaves one more possibility.

 

D: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.d4

This is not actually part of the Steiner Variation, but the Diemer-Duhm Gambit (DDG). I think this continuation is unlikely because white can reliably get the same position after 2.d4 d5 3.c4.

Just take the center pawn and develop comfortably, as GM Santos Latasa does here:

That should conclude my coverage of the Steiner Variation. Did I leave anything out? What do you think of this line? Please leave a comment to this post!

Good luck, Nikki!

Chess Study vs. Chess Practice

Study and practice are both important, but…

One side of the equation will likely have a bigger impact on your overall chess progress.

Many people are experiential. They learn best “by doing.” Such chess players are able to learn from their mistakes, and don’t repeat their errors so much. When coaching, I can recognize such players very quickly.

Other players, like me, are more thick-headed. We can make the same types of mistakes — maybe the same exact mistakes — more than once. Perhaps several times … before hopefully learning from them.

“Ok, everyone learns at a different pace, understood. But they do learn! So the improver should simply play a lot, then?”

Not so fast, parents and coaches…

 

Competitive Makeup

Some players love competing, others only like winning … and plenty more are borderline nauseated by the whole tournament experience!

We need to be honest about this. It’s common to say “wins and losses don’t matter,” or similar things about “the process” of improving.

But results do matter. Not in the sense of “Ha ha, I beat you!,” but rather in dealing with losses.

Losing is much tougher on some players than others. I’m definitely part of this crowd.

Not everyone has the same competitive psychology. I advise you to not force your child or student to have the same psychology you have, or that you think they should have. 

Some players are quiet, timid, or lack confidence. They can achieve success in chess, but not if you try to “toughen them up” from the get-go. That’s how you get a kid to quit.

As a parent or coach, your first responsibility is the well-being of the child. And please: don’t judge a player for “being too sensitive.” Kids can feel annoyance and condescension. Support them, genuinely care about them, and build them up gradually.

So how do you “build them up?”

 

A “Four-Letter Word” in Chess: PREPARATION!

Many players and fans groan when discussing chess study or home preparation. They almost seem to view it as some kind of low-key cheating.

“Just wing it and see what happens!” 

“Let the best player win!”

Fans often accuse top players of “hiding behind their prep.”

I believe this is jealousy: lots of people want to increase their rating fast, but don’t want to put in the hard work for it. They would rather bash the player who gives all to “get good.”

The best way to build confidence in a player who lacks it? Great coaching and prep work!

If a nervous player knows they have been putting in a lot of work on openings and endgames, working properly on tactics, improving their grasp of strategy…they will feel a lot more optimistic about their chances in tournaments.

This work will lead to more victories, bigger trophies, a higher rating…

And then they’re on their way!

One last thing: over-preparing is not an issue in chess. Don’t use it as an excuse to be lazy. Just don’t leave your prep to the night before an event, to the point where it stops you from getting proper rest.

Empire Chess, Winter 2021

Happy New Year!

Empire Chess is the long-running magazine of the New York State Chess Association (NYSCA). It published my article How to Defeat Kids in Chess Tournaments on pages 4-5 of its Winter 2021 issue. An earlier version was published on this blog on November 25.

You can download the entire issue of Empire Chess magazine here. At the end of my article, you’ll find an ad where I offer a special promotion…

An Important Bishop Endgame Concept

Bishop Endgame Theory

In particular, we’re going to discuss the same-color bishop endgame. The attacking side has one pawn, and the defender has none.

If the defender can sacrifice their bishop for the last pawn the game is drawn, so the attacker must proceed carefully.

What the Defender Wants in this Ending

The position is completely drawn if the defending king can reach a square in front of the pawn opposite the color of the bishops. The king stays put and the defender moves their bishop around forever … or until they can call over the Arbiter or TD and claim a draw. Here’s an example:

Things get much more complicated if the defending king is behind the advancing pawn. In that case, the bishop desperately tries to control a square the pawn needs to cross in order to prevent it from queening. The attacking king and bishop look to attack the defending bishop, forcing it to move and give up control of the pawn’s path.

This is why you nearly always want your king to blockade passed pawns in the endgame: he can control all of the squares around him, and it’s harder to push him away than a rook, bishop, or knight!

A Worst Case Scenario

Anyway, a plausible scenario is the following:

This is a famous endgame study by Genovese composer Luigi Centurini (1820-1900) published in 1856. You’ll find it in every endgame encyclopedia, for example Basic Chess EndingsDvoretsky’s Endgame Manual, and Magnus Carlsen’s favorite Fundamental Chess Endings … but for years I didn’t quite understand it.

The Black bishop can stop the pawn on either the long b8-h2 or mini a7-b8 diagonal. If White can gain control of both diagonals, the Black cleric will be unable to stop the pawn.

Chase the Bishop!

 

More Room to Operate

Notice that Black lost because of the short a7-b8 diagonal. To draw, Centurini taught us that the defender usually needs both diagonals to be at least four squares in length. Then, there will always be at least one square on one of the diagonals that the attacker cannot control.

Here’s a famous example of successful defense:

 

Hopefully you now understand this classic bishop endgame if you previously struggled with it!

Chess Teacher vs. Chess Coach

Teaching Comes First

Teaching imparts knowledge and skills to the student that they are lacking.

Coaching helps the student use his/her knowledge and skills more effectively.

Over many years working with students in New York City, I primarily referred to myself as a chess teacher.

I have always believed that knowledge is power in chess … and most of my students needed to increase their knowledge in order to improve their results. It wasn’t only a matter of doing things better.

Knowledge must be shared in a way that is both memorable and useful. Don’t assume your student knows more than they actually do!

 

You Must Be a Teacher

classroom teacher

A good teacher must be well-prepared and engage their students.

Nowadays most players, no matter their age, don’t read chess books. They especially don’t study middlegame and endgame textbooks like I and generations of players before me did. The names Euwe, Fine, Nimzowitsch, Pachman, Romanovsky, Shereshevsky, etc. mean little, if anything, to them.

Solving tactics (recommended) and trying to learn openings through YouTube (not recommended) has somehow become a substitute for taking out a board and pieces, or at least using ChessBase.

Of the thousands of students I taught over the years, only a handful were interested in reading books, watching DVDs, or using ChessBase. If they won’t do this, we have to fill in the gaps during classes or lessons. Otherwise, the student will have gaps in their chess understanding everywhere.

This is where chess teachers earn their money! I have never *expected* my students to do intensive work between lessons unless they expressed an interest in reaching a certain rating level or aimed to win a particular tournament.

If you want your students to improve, quickly … find their weaknesses and eliminate them through thoughtful lesson planning. This is where being well-versed in classic games really comes in handy. I can turn any student weakness into a strength in 3-8 lessons.

 

A Shortcut to Coaching Success

World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik believed the surest path towards improvement is in learning from your own games and opening analyses. I can’t disagree with him.

I offered the next best thing: to analyze my students’ games for them (with extensive text comments — not computer analysis!) and send them PDFs of my work for them to study between lessons … at no extra cost.

Few of my NYC students ever took me up on this … but the ones who did so consistently saw massive improvement, and fast. This was the biggest secret to my coaching success! Well, that and diligent lesson preparation in general.

It took me hours to analyze and comment on my students’ games … but I didn’t mind. I was immersed in chess and derived great satisfaction from their quick progress.

 

Conclusion

If most players are spending the lion’s share of their time on tactics, how do you separate yourself? Sure, you can do the same things your peers do, a little better … but ultimately, you need to create a competitive advantage — to borrow a term from economics.

Coaching, at least good coaching, will help you become more efficient and beat yourself less often. Not having critical knowledge will leave you trying to reinvent the wheel every game … that’s where good teaching comes to the rescue.

Winning Slowly at Chess

Frustrate Your Opponent

Some readers may groan upon seeing the title of this post, and that’s okay. I get it.

Who, when taking their first steps in chess, dreams of winning wars of attrition? Probably no one. On the contrary, I often fantasized about winning a brilliant game in a tournament hall or chess club with a crowd of people watching in awe. Okay, I admit it … I still do!

Alas, I rarely win beautiful games. Most of my wins border on the tedious side — regularly 50+ moves. When I get away from this — whether because of fatigue, laziness, or delusions of grandeur — the results are usually disastrous. I’m just a grinder, and I’ve finally accepted that.

Fortunately, grinding works.

Easier to Play with Black?

With the White pieces, I feel a burden to “prove something” with my advantage of the first move. This often leads to going for too much, and bad things happen.

Grinders subscribe to the “equalize first” philosophy of playing the Black pieces. There isn’t any pressure to “do” anything. Even draws with peers are acceptable, though we want to win just as much as anyone else!

In the right position types, there will often be chances as Black to turn the tables on your opponent, especially if you’re willing to face a mildly unpleasant initiative. For a great example of this, play through Anatoly Karpov’s win against Gata Kamsky from the 1996 FIDE World Championshp Match.

Now I want to share another classic in a similar vein, also one of my favorite examples: