Monday, August 11, 2008

Improve Your Chess VI: Join a Club!

There are lots of reasons to join a chess club, mostly not directly linked to chess improvement. Drinking buddies with a similar interest to you. Something different to do on a Tuesday night. A way to be more involved with the local community. Or less, if you choose one away from your local area. Pure love of the game. The extra competition. Pragmatics: you can easily pick up chess news, gossip, information about tournaments, and so on. Maybe even, via your club you get to indulge a pet-project, like a newsletter, or a website or . . . a blog! Lots of reasons.

However, being a part of a club offers unique opportunities for chess improvement unavailable elsewhere. Today's piece is about what these opportunities are, and the overarching advice is simple: join a club suited to your chess improvement. Or if you're already in a club, orientate your club-based activities toward chess improvement. And finally, if it's impossible for you to join a club because the nearest one is too far away, then why not start yourself up a chess club closer to home?

Practical opportunities to play more

There might be some players who play too much chess, but not many. Regularly playing over-the-board (otb) chess in serious competitive games - rated games under reasonable time-controls - is one key way to improve. It is the only way we really test ourselves, the only way we really come to feel how real our limitations are - and more importantly what they are, the only way we start to look the reality of chess in the face - the difficulty, the confusion, the practicality of the thing. Tal put it succinctly: “Minutes of play and years of analysis are not the same thing.”

And joining a club will always provide more opportunities to play than not. Many clubs have internal competitions (I played 12 rapid-play games in ours this year.) Many clubs are members of several leagues. For our part, for instance, we have a twelve-board team in the London League Division 1, a ten-board team in the London League Division 3, and an eight board team in the London League Division 3; four-board teams in each of the three Croydon Leagues; a four-board team in the Stoneleigh Trophy (although admittedly this is a rapid-play league); a team in the Lauder Trophy; and, an eight-board team in the Surrey League. We also frequently enter teams in Cup Competitions, that is, knock-outs - and we also have links to the Surrey County sides and the 4NCL team the Celtic Tigers. I myself played around 30 games this last season for my club. Not only that, via your club you might hear news of upcoming individual tournaments, get offers of lifts to venues, and so forth.

In short: joining a club should enable you to play more chess; playing chess regularly is important for improvement.

Chess events

Sometimes clubs will arrange events directed toward chess improvement. For instance, a few years ago we held a day of talks about openings. Several strong players each researched a different variation, and each gave talks on their findings. After each talk we played practice games in the variations given. I vividly recall being intrigued that day by the Hedgehog, whilst also being appalled at my lack of comprehension of the mainline of the Scotch. The contrast was confirmed by my results in the practice games and subsequently the former has joined my repertoire, the latter left it.

Of course one shouldn't be merely a passive recipient in these kinds of activities. This is just not for reasons of fairness, although I myself gave a talk about the games of Greco a while back. It's that in getting ready to talk about chess to others, we have to really be sure we know what we're talking about. Often our chess studies aren't like this: we think we've prepared some super-sharp line, we sit down at an actual game and half-way along our opponent varies, disorientated we blunder and bang we're mated five moves later. Back we go to our private preparation, telling ourselves we'll be really sure we've learnt it for next time . . . but not so when you're talking in front of people. You really have to know you know what you're talking about - else the humiliation isn't just a loss under twenty moves, but a flustered silence and red cheeks in front of twenty bemused friends from your club. This is different to putting a chess video on-line, when you can answer any critical questions via Fritz. (There is some overlap here with my advice to coach others.)

In conclusion, at chess clubs you can both organize chess events that force you to work on your chess, and learn from those that others put together.

Chess buddies

There are some people who learn best entirely on their own, but even amongst chess players not many. Most top Grandmasters have seconds, and during top one-on-one matches both competitors will often have teams of players assisting and advising them. And even in this computerized age, some top players even play training matches against human opposition. For instance, Grandmaster Morozevich recently played GM Navarra in an unrated match, the moves of which have been kept secret. (And not over the internet either, but face to face.)

It is unlikely that you and members of your chess club will be quite able to emulate all that. However, even tiny things can help - like extended postmortems with your club-mates after in the pub. However, there is more than that that club mates can do together. I regularly have lunch with team-mate and fellow-blogger Jonathan B, for instance, and we've recently decided to work through the exercises in Jacob Aagard's Excelling at Chess. We take it in turn to set out the pieces, and after some thought talk about how we think about the position. Then we come to a decision: a move and the idea behind it. Sometimes we're bang on, sometimes close but no cigar, sometimes only vaguely thinking about the positions in the right way. Having someone else there helps in several ways: the focus, the impossibility of cheating, and the sheer competitiveness! Although there is a loss in realism due to talking, there is a corresponding gain in tension which brings the experience closer to the ideal of simulating otb chess. (As an aside, I should add that I think the positions in Aagard's book are appropriate for the kind of simulation exercises I talked about previously.) I certainly feel a flutter of nerves much closer to otb chess as we reach for the solutions than I do when, say, playing a few games on at lunch.

Personal advice

Shared activity is one thing. However, for all-but-one member of every chess club, there will always be at least one stronger player, and usually stronger players prove good sources of advice. In fact I would say the ideal person to give a player chess advice is a person who (1) is a stronger player and (2) knows the player and their play personally. I don't think that (1) is a particularly controversial claim, but I think that (2) is. I am saying that it is better to follow chess advice from someone who knows you and your play personally than from any other expert - even Grandmasters who write books, even World Champions who produce DVDs, even from the works of undoubted world-class trainers. Indeed, I have benefited this way myself, following advice from club-mate and fellow-blogger ejh about my opening repertoire, that I detailed here. ejh knew me and my play, and knew my openings needed fixing, and went about it in a way that worked for me. No book has had anything like as powerful effect on my repertoire or indeed my overall attitude to the opening in chess.

Having said that, I do still stand my advice to read Rowson. There is not really a contradiction here. As I explained in my previous article, I find Jonathan Rowson's two books about chess improvement confusing and badly-written - but because of this, they are hugely provocative, shake up our assumptions, and are a stimulus to change. And they contain only one or two pieces of truly direct advice anyhow - practice concentration, simulate otb chess - so they hardly can be considered a surrogate for the personal touch.

On which note, in my article on Rowson I compared his work favourably with Nunn's Secrets of Practical Chess. Again Nunn's book provides a contrasting example to the kind of thing I'm talking about here. One piece of advice Nunn gives is "DAUT" which stands for "Don't Analyze Unnecessary Tactics". Undoubtedly true, good advice, and when we have a clear-cut positional option we should not plunge headlong into muddy tactical waters for the sake of it.

One question Nunn doesn't ask, though, is: what's a necessary tactic to analyze? Instead he assumes the reader errs on the side of tactical analysis. I think it's fair to say this preference for tactics is a part of Nunn-the-chess-player, but there is a tacit assumption it is part of his readership too. This makes him a bad source of advice for players not like him.

Let me make this concrete for anyone not convinced. Even if you've read the book, try this test. The test is: come to a conclusion about the tactics in the diagram position after 16...Nxe4, analyzing for several minutes at most.
This is from page 91 of the book, the chapter on Middlegames. Nunn is discussing how to play bad positions - whether to try to hang-on with grim defence, or try to create confusion in complications. What are the necessary tactics you need to analyze here to make that decision? The answer is implied in Nunn's annotations. After 16...Nxe4 Nunn writes how he was "dumbfounded" and that "for several minutes I just couldn't see the point of it . . . Then I suddenly saw the idea." The game continued, 17.Qxe4 Bb7 18.Rd5 Rc8 19.c3! Qc4 20.Qxc4 Rxc4 21.Bg2 Bxd5! 22.Bxd5 and then black played 22...Rxh4! to which Nunn comments: "This moves is the key point which it took me several minutes to see at move 16."

Several minutes to see 22...Rxh4 at move 16?

Frankly, I can barely visualize the variation and resultant position now, despite having played over the line several times. DAUT is all very good advice - provided you're at the level where you can see sequences like the above after several minutes; that is, provided you're a Grandmaster with excellent tactical vision, or at least a player with a far superior command of tactics compared than your positional sense. Incidentally, I think it's rather a shame Secrets of Practical Chess wasn't written twice: once in its current form by Nunn - a Grandmaster with strong tactical leanings - and once with the same chapters but by a positionally-orientated GM with relatively weak tactical abilities. It would be interesting to see the overlaps, more interesting to see the potential inversions.

Anyway. My points is that Nunn's advice is going to be a poor-fit for some players, because he doesn't know them personally and so his advice is not tailored to them. A team-mate who knows you well will certainly not advice you to analyze less tactics if they watch you blundering into two-movers every other week!

Which club is right for you?

Obviously, you can't just roll up to a chess club and demand free lessons. That's not how the world works. My point is more than many chess clubs are conducive environments for learning, especially through the friendships you make there, which often prove mutually-beneficial from a chess point of view.

Sometimes whether a chess club is likely to be right for you is pretty obvious from just the name of the club. The membership of London Deaf is self-explanatory, whilst teetotalers might feel somewhat out of place at Drunken Knights. Other times it's not so obvious, so the best thing to do is find out. Nowadays, first contact is frequently through the web:

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For our part for instance, we're on google maps as you can see. However geography nowadays isn't as crucial as it might seem: our teams in the London League play in central, not south London; our team in the Surrey League plays as far away as Guildford. We also have a website with the essential facts about our club here. Forty members is a healthy number, and it should be clear from the ECF grades that we have players of widely varying strengths. After that, second contact might be in person on a club night, or phoning or emailing a club official. For instance, the contact details of our captains are available on our website who can be contacted as appropriate. Incidentally, if you're not improving, want to improve, and are a member of a club - I don't mean to imply this is the club's "fault"! More, that being in a club is an opportunity to set-up situations suitable for improving, even if this kind of thing is directly structured into the goings on of the club itself.

There are lots of reasons to join a chess club not related to chess improvement. However, there are several ways to improve your chess from within a chess club that are not readily available elsewhere. One is that they increase the opportunities for you to play competitive chess. Also, you can be involved in chess events orientated around improving. Less formally, you can make chess friends who can help you train and vice versa. A special example of that is the situation where stronger players give weaker players advice. I argue this advice is more likely to be apt than that found in books. Finally, it's not necessarily obvious what the right club will be for a player, so it's worth exploring the options. (And do drop us a note if you think Streatham & Brixton Chess Club might be the place for you!)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

'a pet project like ... a blog.'

LOL ... I know about pet projects ...

anyway, excellent article. I hope people find it informative (where I live I'm pretty limited on my choices which is why I'm an internet junky).