Chess strategy and tactics are intertwined … but ask yourself this: which side of the equation receives most of the focus in lessons and classes?
Definitely tactics. And for a lot of coaches, it’s not even close. However …
What does it take for a student to gain proficiency in tactics? I only know one method: solving thousands of puzzles, and getting regular practice applying tactical ideas in games.
This experience cannot be gained solely through lessons. I assign tactics puzzles for homework (usually Chess School 1a) and rarely work on them during a private lesson. The exception is calculation practice, but that is different from developing tactical sight.
It’s perfectly fine to spend 10-15 minutes on tactics by checking tactics homework, and maybe doing a few warm-up puzzles — but that’s as far as it should go.
Puzzle solving alone is a terrible use of time for a 1-2 hour once-per-week lesson.
I also think it’s lazy! Beware, parents.
The Real Purpose of Chess Lessons
Chess lessons should mostly focus on strategy.
You can go to Amazon, buy a chess tactics book, and work independently. Diligent study will bring results, no question about it, and you won’t need a coach for improvement in this area.
But what if you want to improve your understanding of chess strategy?
If you go to Amazon and purchase a strategy book — even an excellent one authored by Euwe, Nimzowitsch, Dvoretsky or Marin, for example — there is a lot that you won’t “get” right away. Or at all.
Chess lessons or classes can really shorten the learning curve. That is what a teacher is paid for!
Example of a Chess Strategy Lesson
I recently taught an online class and showed the following position, which comes from the famous game Capablanca vs. Tartakower from the celebrated New York 1924 tournament, before White’s 23rd move:
I asked the students (roughly 800 to 1400 in strength) to give me ideas for the first player, and got what I expected: suggestions to attack or win tactically. Chiefly 23.d5 to open the center “for an attack,” and 23.c5, trying to skewer the Black queen and rook with a further 24.Bb5.
First, the d4-d5 advance will only lead to mass exchanges and the Black knight will be able to use the newly opened c5-square (probably with the maneuver …Na5-b3-c5).
Second, c4-c5 does not set up a skewer, as after 24.Bb5 Black can reply with 24…c6.
They were surprised to learn the World Champion played 23.h4!
The idea is to follow up with 24.h5, giving Black a very difficult choice: either allow 25.hxg6 which creates a permanent weakness on g6, or even worse to play 24…gxh5 when after 25.Rh1! White wins back the h5-pawn, is closer to getting a passed pawn on the kingside, and maybe wins the h7-pawn as well:
I could see the mental light bulbs going on through their Zoom cameras! Tactics and attacking play are not always the right tools for the job.
How well would most books explain these ideas, while anticipating your questions and being able to demonstrate exactly the variations you need to see in order to understand the position?
Most players are used to over-the-board, or OTB, chess. Correspondence games are played over a period of months or even years, and not in person.
Screenshot of a completed ICCF correspondence game.
They were traditionally played by postal mail, with each player sending moves to their opponent on a postcard. This is rare nowadays, and most games are played via a webserver — just log in, bring up your game, and enter a move on a chessboard. You can also exchange messages with your opponent if you wish.
Individual correspondence tournaments are round-robins with an odd number of players. You play all of your games simultaneously: half with the white pieces, and half with black. The time control is given as X moves in Y days: for example 10 moves in 50 days. This repeats as long as the game continues and a player has not run out of time.
Many sites offer correspondence chess, and the number grows if we include online servers that offer everything from blitz, to standard, to correspondence-style play. However, there is only one place to play official, FIDE-recognized CC: the ICCF.
The International Correspondence Chess Federation (ICCF)
The ICCF logo.
Let’s learn a bit about ICCF’s history, from the body itself:
ICCF is the International Correspondence Chess Federation. ICCF was founded in 1951 as a new appearance of the ICCA (International Correspondence Chess Association), which was founded in 1945, as successor of the IFSB (Internationaler Fernschachbund), founded in 1928.ICCF
And the key part:
ICCF is closely co-operating with the leading world chess organization FIDE. All ICCF titles, championships and ratings are recognised by FIDE.ICCF
In addition to World Champion, the ICCF offers the following titles for correspondence play (in descending order):
Senior International Master (SIM)
International Master (IM)
Correspondence Chess Master (CCM)
Correspondence Chess Expert (CCE)
Note: the Ladies Grandmaster (LGM) and Ladies International Master (LIM) titles have been phased out, as have Ladies Correspondence World Championships.
Normally, to achieve these titles a player must score two or more norms totalling a total of 24 games, similar to over-the-board GM/IM/WGM/WIM titles (two or more norms totalling 27 or more games).
CCE and CCM were added in the past few years, but I don’t think they’re prestigious, even though I have the CCE title and have a very good chance of completing the CCM title in my current tournament.
What About Computers!?
ICCF does not prohibit outside assistance. Players are allowed to use engines, which I freely admit to doing.
Besides ICCF being officially recognized by FIDE, this is the other main reason I chose ICCF play: they don’t pretend to police computer usage in long games played across the globe.
Now, no one suspects anyone else of anything. It would be much worse if computer assistance was not allowed, and some players used it anyway to cheat. I have no doubt this happens on other servers.
And I’ve got news for you: simply turning on the engine and having it do all the work for you will not get you very far when everyone else can do the same thing! This has made ICCF play very different than it was in the past, but I don’t see a viable alternative in the computer age. The vast majority of games end in draws.
I’m not very skilled in ICCF play, and don’t take it super-seriously. My opening prep is slipshod, and I’m nowhere close to being a computer expert. Still, there is scope for creativity in opening choices, directing the line of play, and steering games to the endgame. I find “centaur” (human plus computer) chess stimulating, and in some ways it has helped my standard chess, too!
Have you ever played correspondence chess before? Would you ever try it? And how do you feel about the ICCF not prohibiting engine assistance?
The games are broadcast on chess.com and elsewhere.
The Format of the FIDE Online Nations Cup
FIDE and chess.com collaborated on the FIDE Nations Cup.
The games are played with a time control of 25+10 (25 minutes for the entire game plus an additional 10 seconds per move starting from move 1).
There are six teams in the event with six players each; four male and two female players.
Each match is contested on four boards. On Boards 1,2, and 3 a team chooses three of its four male players to play. On Board 4, a team chooses one of its two female players to play.
2½ points out of 4 are needed to win a match, and all boards count equally.
The team that wins each match gets 2 points and the loser 0. In case of a 2-2 tie, each team receives 1 match point.
It’s a double round-robin team tournament, so each team faces the other five teams twice for a total of 10 rounds. After 10 rounds, the two highest-scoring teams play a final match on May 10. The team with the highest score going into the final gets draw odds; in other words, if the final match is tied 2-2, the team with the highest score in the round-robin phase wins the event.
Every team gets $24,000 for participating. After 10 rounds, the two top scoring teams face off in a final match for the FIDE Nations Cup. The team runner-up gets an additional $12,000 ($36,000 total for the team), and the winner of the Cup gets an additional $24,000 ($48,000 for the team).
Four top nations are invited, and then two other “compilations” of teams were added.
The countries invited were China, India, Russia, and the United States.
The two additional teams were Team Europe and Team Rest of World.
Every team brought most of their top male and female players! The captains were notable too.
The Players and Captains of the FIDE Online Nations Cup
The male players included 2020 CandidatesDing Liren and Wang Hao, plus Wei Yi and Yu Yangyi. Even scarier for the rest of the field were their female players: the return of 3-time Women’s World Champion Hou Yifan, and current Women’s World Champion Ju Wenjun.
Having won two of the last three Olympiads and the last two Women’s Olympiads, China was undoubtedly the favorite. Longtime captain Ye Jiangchuan lead the team here, too.
All the top players from this chess powerhouse came to play as well, including legendary former World Champion Vishy Anand, up-and-coming star Vidit Gujrathi, elite fixture Pentala Harikrishna, plus Adhiban Baskaran.
Their top female players are present as well, including Cairns Cup winner Humpy Koneru and Harika Dronavali. Anand is playing and serving as captain, while former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik is an adviser to the team.
This team is formidable as well, led by Candidates’ co-leader Ian Nepomniachtchi, the rising Vladislav Artemiev, former Challenger Sergey Karjakin, and former Candidate Dmitry Andreikin.
Their female players include recent Women’s World Championship Challenger Aleksandra Goryachkina and current Russian Women’s Champion Olga Girya. Their captain is the experienced Alexander Motylev.
Their “Top 3” are here: 5-time US Champion and former World #2 Hikaru Nakamura, current World #2 and recent Challenger Fabiano Caruana, and perennial Top 10 Wesley So. Also playing for the team is recent arrival Leinier Dominguez.
Two stalwarts of US Women’s Chess, 7-time US Women’s Champion Irina Krush and 4-time US Women’s Champion Anna Zatonskih make their appearance as well. The team is lead by John Donaldson, who has captained US Olympiad teams since the 1980s.
A mix of players from different nations is led by Candidates co-leader Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, former World #2 Levon Aronian of Armenia, and former World #3 Anish Giri of the Netherlands, who is playing as a reserve. Board 3 is Poland’s Jan-Krzysztof Duda.
Their female team members are Ukraine’s Anna Muzychuk and Georgia’s Nana Dzagnidze. Oh yeah, I almost forgot: their captain is the greatest player ever, Garry Kasparov!
Team Rest of World
Teimour Radjabov (Azerbaijan) has returned to the top with a bang, and he is joined by young star Alireza Firouzja who has not chosen a country to represent after leaving Iran. Bassem Amin (Egypt) and Jorge Cori (Peru) represent Africa and South America, respectively.
Former Women’s World Champion Mariya Muzychuk (Ukraine) and Dinara Saduakassova (Kazakhstan) round out their lineup. They are captained by FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person at a tournament in 2019.
Round Robin Phase
China dominated the first part of the FIDE Online Nations Cup with 17 match points (+8=1-1). They drew Russia in Round 3, and only lost to USA in Round 10 when they had already clinched the top spot in the final.
The race for the other final spot came down to USA(+6=1-3) and Europe (+5=3-2). Each squad finished with 13 match points, but USA got the spot in the final by scoring 22 game points to Europe’s 21.5!
The other teams — Russia, India, and Team World — fell out of contention early on.
China earned draw odds in the Mother’s Day final match, which I have to agree with. There should be a reward for winning the first, 10-round phase of an event like this. In one match, anything can happen.
Still, it was too much for the USA to overcome. On paper, China had an advantage anyway, especially on Board 4, with the strongest active female on the planet Hou Yifan facing my friend Irina Krush. I had no doubt America’s only female Grandmaster would bring her best, and she held a draw rather comfortably despite being massively out-rated.
To win the match, USA needed two points out of the three remaining games, and it was just not to be. Hikaru Nakamura and Ding Liren drew a very double-edged game on Board 1, while Fabiano Caruana pressed Wei Yi on Board 2 and Yu Yangyi pressed Wesley So on Board 3.
Caruana and Yu both won, which was fitting because they were the two best performers in the entire event. The match was drawn 2-2, and China won the first FIDE Online Nations Cup.
Will this event become a fixture in the future after we (hopefully) defeat COVID-19? I hope so!
Chess tactics software has experienced a boom in the past 10-15 years, and many good products have hit the market in that time. First appearing on CD and DVD, this material can now be purchased via download. There are many online tactics trainers to choose from as well.
Which chess tactics software should I choose?
It doesn’t really matter which product you choose; pick one you like that presents a challenge.
Convekta chess tactics software
A popular recommendation is the free Chess Tempo, but I have never liked the look or functionality. Another possibility is chess.com, which I currently use and think is worthwhile, but far from perfect, and you need to pay to get access to more than about 10 puzzles per day.
I raised my rating from 1850 to 2000 over 10 months in 2008. The two main things I did were work seriously on my openings, and solve 40-100 tactics puzzles each day using Convekta’sChess Combinations Encyclopedia and CT-Art 3.0. I absolutely adore these two tactics suites…maybe I should go through them again?
Remember: You are training to find tactics in real games!
Some players solve tactics purely for enjoyment; others want to improve their results in blitz (5-minute or less) or bullet (1-minute) games. Still, I assume most players who spend a lot of time solving tactics want to see results in their over-the-board tournament games.
At minimum, you have 30 minutes of thinking time for each game. There’s no need to bash out an answer for a tactics problem, or worse, a guess. Don’t worry about training for time scrambles; focus your training on the meat of the game.
I admit it’s tempting to play the first answer that catches your eye; I’ve done it more than I would care to admit! This is why I still recommend students use physical books to solve puzzles, even in this day and age — it’s not just nostalgia.
Instead, take your time and calculate! I can’t stress this enough. Some tactics programs give you more or less points depending on how quickly you solve the puzzle. Ignore this! Force yourself to see future moves, not just guess them or hope your moves work.
Hard work pays off
If you normally struggle with calculation, prepare to miss a lot of moves — for you and your “opponent!” If you keep at it, I promise you will improve.
Also, don’t focus on doing as many tactics as you can; do as many as you can while giving 100%.
You will quickly notice your play in longer games (say 15-minute) become much stronger. This is another reason, by the way, why you should give up blitz if you really want to improve your tournament results!
The Magnus Carlsen Invitational was just announced by the World Champion himself. The rapid and blitz tournament featuring eight of the world’s best players will begin April 18, online.
With sports shut down across the globe due to Covid-19 including chess, spectators can follow the Magnus Carlsen Invitational at home. Internet broadcasts have made physical audiences unnecessary for chess events. Pictures of empty audiences may give the impression that chess is unpopular, but that’s far from the truth.
There should be limits to what we do with technology!
Organizers: please don’t try online classical tournaments. The risk of cheating is too high. Classical events are what fans remember for years to come; we quickly forget the winners of the world rapid championship.
It would be very difficult to ensure fair play when the games are played remotely. With no way to check for devices before or during games, there would always be suspicion. Arbiters sent to every player’s location would not erase all doubts.
The FIDE Ethics Commissions rightly punishes cheaters harshly, forever tarnishing them. Gaoiz Nigalidze and Igors Rausis were caught using chess computer programs in the bathroom, and lost their grandmaster titles as a result.
A successful Magnus Carlsen Invitational would be great for chess, but I hope organizers don’t take things too far.
There are a lot of popular chess-playing sites nowadays, many of them free. The biggest at the moment seem to be chess.com, chess24.com, and lichess.org. These “big three” are free.
Internet Chess Club logo
Still, I happily pay $69.95 each year to play on ICC, the Internet Chess Club.
The former industry leader (established in 1995) keeps losing market share to other sites, but there are two huge reasons I haven’t switched.
ICC’s Barrier to Entry
I like the fact that to play on ICC with anything but a guest account, players need to make a financial commitment to do so.
I believe a person is less likely to “fool around” or cheat when they have real skin in the game. There’s no incentive to do so.
This means I rarely encounter players who let their clock run out in hopeless positions. I also can’t ever remember facing someone I felt was using computer assistance. Players give their best effort, and the games are very “professional.”
I don’t like to chat with my opponents. I have set an auto “Thanks for the game” message to appear after each game, and no talking allowed during play. It’s rare I get a rude comment after a game, even if I win in a time-scramble — I get such comments less than ten times a year.
Part of this “professionalism,” I’m sure, has to do with who I’m facing.
The Pool of Players (Literally!)
ICC has “pools.” When you join the 1-minute, 3-minute, 5-minute, 15-minute, etc. pools you are automatically paired against another player in the pool. Pools aren’t unique to ICC, other sites have them too.
The thing is, I nearly always get a worthwhile game. True, ICC occasionally pairs me against a player with too few games to have an established rating. Overall though, I don’t feel like I waste my time when I log on, having to face players far below my skill level or who may be using computer assistance.
I’m not saying no one cheats on ICC, and I’m not accusing other sites of having lots of cheaters. My point is, I see no need to change what works for me. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for everyone.
Caveat Emptor…ICC isn’t perfect
One of the increasingly annoying things about playing on the Internet Chess Club is that it can take some time to be paired in the pool, sometimes around a minute. No doubt this is because of the decreasing number of opponents available to play. It’s not too big of a deal, though.
A 1500 player probably wouldn’t get the same value from ICC compared to one of the big free sites. And for many years, I have only recommended ICC to players roughly 1000 or more. So if you’ve finished Chess School 1a, give it a shot!
My current USCF rating is 2075. Not enough to get perks on other sites (or on ICC either, for that matter), but too strong to be mixed in a giant pool with a lot of weaker players. At least I think so…maybe I’m wrong. The hypothetical 1500 player I mentioned earlier isn’t bumping against the top of the scale.
Perhaps my read is incorrect and I’m just being stubborn? I’d love to hear what other people think about this topic!