I finally took the bait. Can you teach me? What advice do you have? Your play is awesome - please show me how you do it? I'd been saying I was too busy. Or not a good coach. Or not good enough to teach. Or thanks, but my play is really nothing special. Or whatever, as these requests meandered in, but someone or other made me laugh and I thought I saw some real potential in their play: And so I finally took the bait, and on the great all-round chess site Chess World I set up a coaching game with them (there is a superb facility for this there).
I found I enjoyed it - the dispensing of advice, the appreciation that came in return - and in no time my pool of students had swollen, I was trying to explain about doubled-pawns here, opening principles there, checking for checks and captures, recommending books on basic tactics all over the place, setting tests about pawn-structure undermining that no-one understood, and generally failing to teach anyone anything, as evidenced by the complete lack of increase in any of my students' grades over the following months. (I did manage to almost teach one student Légal's Trap, and was feeling pretty proud of the fact until he captured on e5 in the diagram to the right.)
Eventually my enjoyment turned to puzzlement. Why was I such a bad coach? I had no answer, shrugged, and accepted another invitation to a coaching game, where I found a grateful beginner asking me for any general basics about how to play the game. Of course, I thought, and went to paste a link to a long list of basic chess wisdom I have discovered, no longer on-line but similar to the 100 Tips for Better Chess that can be found here. Once again I scanned the list and found myself nodding at the sensible advice - after all who could argue with things like:
35. If the centre is blocked, don’t automatically castle.- and so on, from 1 up to 100?
36. Trade pieces when you’re ahead in material, but not when you’re behind.
37. Trade pieces in cramped positions to create more space.
38. Trade pieces when under attack. This eases the pressure.
Mm. What if you're behind in material, and in a cramped position? Does it depend on whether you're under attack or not? Mm . . . I wondered what on earth I thought I was doing. Was I really suggesting he thought through each of the 100 pointers in each position he encountered, working out which mattered and which didn't? Could he really learn effectively about chess with such a cluttered vocabulary? Without looking at positions? And not only that, am I really claiming that the game of chess can be understood properly by such wordy descriptions? Are such simplifications really 'useful lies' or is that just plain patronizing? Can I really say to him, Here Is Chess Understanding, and point him in that direction? Can anyone else truthfully make that kind of claim?
Whatever the answers, coaching enabled me to rethink these issues in terms of my own game. I realized I tended to think too much in words at the board, and that one of my problems in the middlegame was confusion as a result of too much verbal thinking. Little wonder that the middlegame to me seemed less bequeathed by God, as the phrase goes, than by a demon. I would like to say it helped me "clarify" my views on chess, but actually I would say the opposite: it helped me disclarify my view on chess, in particular abandoning the simplicities of various mantras we teach beginners, the mantras we try to make ourselves believe in order to feel vaguely competent amongst the vast mysteries of the game. At the board for me, I suddenly realised I had a tendency to treat the game as made up of "parts" - small advantages and disadvantages that accumulate, dissipate, interact - than to treat the game as a "moving whole", as, say, those playing romantic-style chess or prophylaxis-based chess did. The foolish win of a pawn and lack of sense for the overall "spirit" of the resultant position in the game featured here from a few years ago is a reasonable example; this game from a tournament on the Sunday just gone offers a more recent contrast:
Anyway, that is one way that coaching others helped me: the sheer fact of having to try to explain chess concepts forced me to rethink them afresh, and in doing so I discovered various problems of my own.
However, there is a second way that coaching others teaches us something. That is, in doing so we get to see errors-in-action at a simpler level, and so we come to understand our own problems better. There is something of a Russian Dolls structure at work in chess, where the errors of a novice are simple versions of the errors Grandmasters make. Sometimes we can learn more about the nature of errors in chess by looking at them in miniature rather than at massive scale. This is something coaching provides. It is easy to imagine various plausible lessons one might take home from coaching that fit into this picture: you can see players play positionally well, but collapse amidst tactical complications. You see opening specialists play perfectly until the middlegame, when they fall apart. And so on. My point is that we are familiar with all sorts of errors in chess, but by trying to really help someone sort out theirs, we get a far better feeling for what those errors really are and how difficult they are to overcome. And in doing so, we can turn our learning back on ourselves. In tomorrow's piece about advice I intend to provide an example of this. (I consider advice linked to coaching, but different.)
So, my conclusions for today are:
- because chess coaching is extremely difficult to do successfully, the coach gets to rethink his or her own chess, and thus discover things to improve
- because during chess coaching the coach witnesses simpler versions of errors they make, they come to better understand their own problems in chess
- sometimes - perhaps more often than not - chess improvement will happen entirely by accident; I did not try to coach others with the intention of improving my own game at the expense of theirs.