Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Improve Your Chess II: Vice and Advice

The Chess Player's Personality
One of the qualities most common to chess players is an absolute unwillingness to follow almost any advice whatsoever. The game itself encapsulates this personality trait; in fact chess is an outlet for individualistic thinking. We sit alone at the board and there is nobody else there at our side, guiding our arm, helping us, taking over if we tire, chatting to us. Every single decision is ours and ours alone. There are no substitutes, like in team-sports, no switch of personnel, no following what the coach says, even if you disagree, no slotting into a role, no shared responsibility. The game is emphatically individualistic.

One side-effect of this character trait that chess requires is a resistance to following advice off-the-game-board too. For instance, whilst coaching on ChessWorld a few years ago I played six games in a row with an opponent rated a fair amount lower than me, and I won each game with a knight fork. In some cases the fork was the finishing touch to an already-won position, in others it was a basic tactic out of the blue that my opponent missed entirely. The diagram shows the simplest example from these games.

So it was obvious to me from these wins what my opponent's weakness was: that whilst he wasn't a bad player in most respects, he had an almost beginner-level blindness to tactics involving knight-forks. He had no trouble spotting knight captures and other one-move threats, but he was more or less entirely blind to two-move sequences involving a knight - but not, say, to simple pins. I advised him therefore to pick up Chess Tactics by Paul Littlewood, which includes a chapter that explains what knight forks are, explains how to defend against them, and provides the reader with various examples with which to test himself.

Now, this player wanted to improve; he also dedicated a considerable amount of time to chess, and as far as I could tell respected my opinion. A few months later when I played him again, I asked how he'd been getting on with the book. He'd not been reading it, he said; had not bought it in fact. Instead he'd been looking at some opening book about off-beat variations. You can guess the result: I won, with a knight fork. Would he now change his mind, I asked? Maybe, he replied - meaning, no.

So coaching allowed me to witness a weakness (psychological, in this case) in another player that I could then use to help recognize my own weaknesses. In my case, I realised that my natural-born refusal of advice manifested itself in chess most clearly in my choice of openings. Despite being well aware of the common advice to stick to an opening repertoire, and ensure it's not merely off-beat for the sake of it, I had gone the opposite way - especially with black. There is a reason why The Hungarian Defence is rarely seen; it's because it's passive, doesn't contest the centre, and leaves white various promising options to choose from. The position after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Be7 is simply better for white in all number of ways. But that's not what I was telling myself. Instead, I reminded myself my average grade with it was 173, that I'd not lost a game with it, and so on. The statistical reality, however, masked the real story: in most of the games I had had inferior positions, in two, outright lost ones. I had been lucky, and anyway I had not played enough games with it for the statistics to really count. That kind of luck would not last.

So, what changed my mind? A coincidence comprised of two things. Firstly, it was around the same time my opponent above was neglecting the study of knight forks, and witnessing his obstinacy in the face of advice reminded me of my own resistance. Secondly, I was lucky enough to be receiving explicit advice on my opening repertoire from my club-mate ejh. I was extremely lucky in this respect to be receiving expert advice at the same time as realizing I needed to take it, and for the quality, quantity and pertinence of the advice. Here is how the process started:
Right. This is important. In his book on creating a repertoire, Steve Giddins says how, when living in Moscow, he went to see IM Bimi (I think it was Beim) who, first thing out, asked him to say what his repertoire was. What his responses were to 1.e4 and 1.d4 (and the major branches thereof) and, as White, what his responses were to the major replies to his first move. Giddins couldn't, as he mostly made things up as he went along. Beim shook his head.

You need to do this. We'll kick off now. Don't worry if there are holes in it - but we will have to fill them by the end of the week and then you will have to stick to it. Not for the rest of your life, but every line must get a thorough working before you can be sure it doesn't suit you.

No "maybes", by the way. You can give options, but you have to be certain what the options are and why you're playing them.
What?, I thought. Stick to an opening? For more than a game or two? Know in advance what I was going to play? A thousand and one predictable ifs and buts flittered through my mind, but then I remembered my recent opponent's point-blank refusal to follow my advice, and that the person advising me here was graded twenty or so points higher than me. So, I took the plunge, followed advice, and created a repertoire.

'Almost' . . .
Now, my point so far is that chess players generally don't like to follow advice. Rather than willingly take it - impossible for our natures - the only thing left to do if we want to improve is swallow advice like a bitter medicine. Is my sole point, then, that you don't take advice but must swallow it anyway? Not quite. I began this article by saying: "One of the qualities most common to chess players is an absolute unwillingness to follow almost any advice whatsoever." Notice that there is an almost in amongst that lot. Why "almost"?

Well, there is one type of advice that many, if not all chess players follow; one might even say worship with religious devotion. That is, advice which conforms to opinions they already hold. In my case, the opinion I already held was that everyone else knew masses of mainline theory; I didn't have the right kind of memory for it; anyway, I was lazy and a more practical solution was to take them out of theory as quickly as possible, trickster-style. Thus I nodded approvingly at Miles's 1...a6, Basman's 1.g4s, gave Lasker a thumbs up, and so on. Of course I didn't play entirely ludicrous openings myself (and there were a few mainlines I fancied I knew, so counted them as "special" somehow) but in general I liked this sort of pseudo-pragmatic approach. For a while I even had more opening books along the lines of Secrets of Opening Surprises (SOS) than I did opening books about mainstream openings; in fact I even had a novelty published in one of the SOSs. Incidentally, a completely different example of how to think your way through conflicting advice and opinion can be found here, an interesting blog post about the right use of tactical exercises.

Anyway, I think it should be clear what my general conclusion is. Swallow advice, especially when you really don't want to. And if your standard is stuck, do not follow the advice you normally like to: you have probably gone as far as you can with it already.

Coaching versus Advice
Yesterday I wrote about chess coaching, today advice. Yesterday, I suggested chess coaching can help the coach; is the same true for advice? That by giving advice we help ourselves? My answer is 'no' and in general my advice (paradoxical as it sounds) is to avoid giving advice to other players unless you have a strong reason to do so, eg they are your team-mate, friend, they do the same for you, you enjoy writing for a blog, you are paid to do so, etc.

I will get to my reasoning in a moment, but I want to note two things before I do. Firstly, my use of the two terms 'coaching' and 'advice' has so far been somewhat casual. For instance, ejh was giving me a snippet of broad advice followed by a lot of actual coaching. Secondly, in what follows I instead try to push the two terms to their logical extremes, in order to separate out their differences. I hope that the loss of realism is compensated for by a gain in clarity. Anyway, here goes.

Let's define coaching as: a conversation, based around the board and actual moves, between two players of qualitatively different strengths. And let's define advice as a situation whereby one player emits instructions to a mute receiver. What are the differences? Advice is centred on the giver's knowledge, coaching is based on the receiver's experience. Advice is abstract, wordy, preconceived; coaching involves the game itself and its content is created anew. Advice is lofty, easy, and clear; coaching is down-to-earth, hard, and confusing. Advice does not require engagement with consequences - such as looking for improvements in results and ratings - coaching requires the search for changes and effects.

What does this mean? The thinking involved when giving advice is, for the giver, rote-thinking: repeating things they've already decided upon. However, the thinking involved in coaching for the coach is totally different: it requires rethinking one's chess knowledge from another's point of view and experience. Hence I think one vice in chess is to actually give advice, unless there is a specific reason to do so.

Finally, I started this piece by saying most chess players refuse to follow advice. One piece of advice in yesterday's post was, I suppose, for players looking to improve to start really trying to coach (not advise!) others. I wonder if anyone out there has proved my opening sentence today wrong, and done just that?


Chris Morgan said...

In John Nunn's book 'Secrets of Practical Chess' he advises against playing off-beat opening lines because sooner or later you're going to have to spend as much time learning other such lines when the off-beat line gets 'found out', as you would learning a main line.
I must admit I'm guilty of playing unusual openings myself, but when you do hear of great players like those you mentioned Tom, who do play unusual lines, you think 'well, it worked for them, and they are such strong players'. I suppose the answer to that might be, well they can get away with it.
I also think that weaker players may be encouraged to stay with their off-beat openings because the 'tricks' are perhaps more likely to work on their level of opponent.

ejh said...

Another point is that if they play offbeat openings, they work very hard on them.

If your opening repertoire relies on work-avoidance, then you will get found out.

Now obviously not everybody has lots of time to work on their openings, but this is a reason not to chop and change all the time, as the only way you will learn is by practice. And if you spend your time being scared of other people's preparation, then you will never learn anything since you'll always be trying to play something you've never played before. It's specious to imagine that this doesn't matter, because the other player will also be new to it. Firstly, this may not be true (for instance, anyone who's played 1...e5 in reply to 1.e4 for a decent while will have come across most of the dubious gambits White can try). Secondly, you're throwing away the one big advantage you may have, which is experience: who cares what they'e prepared if they've never played the position before? And thirdly, if you're known to have a lot of experience, it may well be that your opponent chickens out, and plays the offbeat variation rather than the most challenging line.

ejh said...

As for tricks: Portisch said somewhere (did we discuss this in a comments box once before?) that the point of an opening is to reach a playable middlegame. It is not to win without trying. You may occasionally get a free point in this way but it's silly to imagine it will happen very often and you should not make it a priority. (Knowing how to avoid losing in the opening - different story. That is a priority.)

Chris Morgan said...

Authors of chess books encourage the playing of unusual openings by writing books about them, but perhaps they don't play those openings themselves.

Jonathan B said...

Now, this player wanted to improve ....

One thing I've learned about personal change over the years:-

Just because it seems logical a person would want change in a certain direction
Just because you think they should want that change
Just because they say they want that change
Just because they even think they want that change

it doesn't not actually mean they DO want that change.

I don't actually believe that most club chess players want to be better.

By that I mean if they were offered some way to improve for free they would of course take it. They will not, however, start to do something constructive to improve their play.

They want change without changing themselves in other words. The stumbling block to just about every form of personal change I think.

And - of course, where I've written 'they' above I actually mean 'we'.

Anonymous said...

Most chess players want to improve, but without putting the work in.

My grade went up 16 points this season to a new high, because I did put some work in - and I barely touched an opening book.

At my club's AGM last year I suggested that we use nights when there aren't any matches a bit more constructively - such as by analysing each other's games. General nods of agreement at the time, but how many people do you reckon actually brought an old scoresheet down to ask for advice?

Adam B.

Tom Chivers said...

What a good idea for a club night Adam. I'm guessing the answer is 1: you?

ejh said...

A word of advice though.

If what you do is show your game to stronger player and they show you what you missed, in and of itself that teaches you nothing.

Nor does simply going away thinking "I'm determined not to make that mistake again".

What can help (and I've put on a lot of Elo points over the last 4-5 years, although I shall lose some in the next list) is asking yourself honestly what sort of errors you make most, and how you can address them. And finding practical answers to that problem is very far from easy.