Friday, January 05, 2007

First lessons of a chess coach

I had my first chess lesson tonight. It was fun. Jon is a very nice guy, quite enthusiastic, has the hallmarks of an experienced coach, and is pretty freaking amazing at the game (the range of moves he instantly saw in the games we went over was just depressing).

I went to his house near Raleigh for an hour lesson (we went for over an hour and a half). He started by going over a couple of games I had brought over. He went through them lightning fast, variation after variation that I hadn't considered, and giving me some strong advice here and there (e.g., don't give up a piece to maintain your kingside pawn structure unless there is a concrete way he can quickly exploit that weakness). Going through those games I started to get worried: one thing many instructors do who are good players is go too fast, assuming the student is following along, going through variations quickly saying "Right?" all the time. It was a little like that. Luckily, as I'll discuss, this was more to give him a sense for my skill level than to do a close analysis.

Once we had gotten through the quick overview of the games, we switched to endgame mode. I had brought about five endgame books over. The next hour or so was pretty intense. He taught me three endgame scenarios. One, King and single pawn versus king. I have worked on those before, so that was kind of fast. Then, Queen versus pawn. I had never seen the whole queen triangulation trick to get the king close to the pawn. Then, the Philidor position in which you draw with a rook against a rook and a pawn.

It was when he was teaching me new ideas that I realized he is an excellent teacher. He would set up the position and have me play him. When I made a mistake, he wouldn't tell me, but just win. Then he'd set it up again and ask some leading questions until I hit on the right idea on my own. When I asked for the answer, he would ask me "What do you think? What is your plan" (I have a feeling the question "What is your plan?" will start to become a nagging voice in my head during games). It forced me to give my opinions, which he could then challenge or correct. By the time I understood the position, he would change it a little bit (e.g., in the Q vs P, if the pawn is on the rook or bishop file the queen trick often won't work), or change the side to move. That is, we looked at the same problem from multiple angles to get a sense for its parameters, until I had a clear idea of the plan and the right moves.

Endgames are sweet: with knowledge of what is winning, I'll know better what types of positions to steer toward in the middle game (yes, a truism, but to actually be doing it is sweet)). I'll need to practice them until I can do them without thinking.

The amazing thing was, he was able to do this while looking through each one of the endgame books. He just didn't have to focus on the board. He would look for a split second, make the move, and keep poring through the books. He particularly liked Lev Alburt's book ("If I had had this when I was starting out, I would probably be a much better endgame player." That is pretty impressive from an IM, which he has been for about 20 years). Since he thought the Albert book was a bit too advanced, we decided on this great gem of a book by Bert Rosen, Chess Endgame Training, which is based on an endgame course Rosen teaches in Germany. I will supplement it with more concept-heavy explanations in Seirawan's Winning Chess Endings.

He suggested I not spend a lot of time right now learning the pawnless endings (e.g., rook versus queen), that since I know all the main ones, to focus on king and pawn and then rook endgames. When I told him I play the Bishop's opening, he said he wants me to stop, and to start playing 2. Nf3 as white. He also thinks that at this point I shouldn't be studying much in the openings anyway except trying to apply general principles. This seems reasonable. Since he kicks ass, I'm pretty much going to follow his advice and see how it goes.

I was pretty darn exhausted by the end of the lesson. We had established a good rapport: I felt very comfortable with him. He asked, near the end, "Do you know the most drawish endgame?" I had no idea, so I busted his chops with "Two knights versus king." (He was looking for bishops of opposite color). Finally, when I told him I don't play many slow time controls, but focus mostly on puzzles and the like, partly forever training but not playing for fear of losing, he told me to start playing and losing more. He said, especially as an IM who is not as good as he was fifteen or twenty years ago, he has the same fears, but that it's just a damned game and to have fun. Sane and sage advice!

I feel pretty lucky to have him as a coach, and will be meeting with him every Thursday. Updates will undoubtedly follow...Incidentally, as discussed here, he gives 30/30 simuls on Saturday and Wednesday nights at ICC.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's always amazing to see the speed of those guys. I always wonder what kind of training I have to follow to get that speed.

1/05/2007 03:57:00 AM  
Blogger Schereschevsky said...

Well done ! I'm also taking lessons every thursday with an IM here in Argentina, 2 hours each class, since 4 months. I have about the same rating as you at ICC. I know that lessons are no cheap there (I pay U$S 10 for 2 hours) but think that everybody that want to improve at chess should take lessons. Why to think that learning chess is different than other diciplines ? I've learnt tennis with a coach, karate with a coach, guitar with a coach. Of course you can learn by yourself, it is also fun, but the improvement will not be the same, time and effort will be many times more. That's my opinion.

1/05/2007 08:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am so jealous! I wish we had an IM or GM around here!

1/05/2007 12:03:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Shakhmat: great point about all disciplines requiring coaches (including academic, sporting, and musical).

Tempo: those fast moves are crazy. Partly I think since I hardly ever play with real boards and pieces, I am slower. Perhaps I should do some endgame with a real board...

1/05/2007 01:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I kind of feel like I have my own coach now, too.

I am going through the Josh Waitzkin stuff on Chessmaster 9.0 and I really fell that I am getting way more than my $9 worth.

Obviously less interactive than a live trainer, but as compensation, you can repeat the lessons at no extra charge, as many times as you need to really make it sink in.

I relate well to his style, too.

1/05/2007 04:25:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Those Josh lectures are great. I am probably going to steal his version of the French Exchange.

1/05/2007 04:30:00 PM  
Blogger takchess said...

If he was agreeable to being audiotaped, that might be of value. Sounds excellent.

So whats it going to be Ruy,Guico or scotch?

Jim Takchess

1/05/2007 05:45:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Tak: since I've been thinking about switching to the Ruy anyway, probably that (due to some comments by Chernev and Euwe, I've been thinking it would be nice to have more flexibility in where I put my Bishop).

1/05/2007 05:51:00 PM  
Blogger phorku said...

I would like to know why he wants you to stop playing the Bishop's? I have been doing quite well with it lately.

1/05/2007 06:04:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Phorku: two main reasons. One, it doesn't threaten anything, so black has many options. Nf3, on the other hand, forces black to decide how to defend his e pawn. Second, the optimal placement of white's king bishop is not clear until black has revealed some of his plans.

Overall, I don't think it really matters. GMs play the Bishop's opening all the time.

1/05/2007 06:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

GM's can play 1.a3 (or something) and still kick your butt. You think you can do that? To play the sort of opening a GM plays is one thing. But to play the opening like the GM plays it, is another. GM's can play just about anything because they are more then well acquainted with the ins and outs of the board. And they probably did not get that knowledgable by starting out the Bishop's opening. I'm pretty sure they would disagree with some of my opening choices too. Although i do try to get a little 1.e4 2.Nf3 in every now and then.

So, did your coach have anything to say about doing lots and lots of puzzles?

1/05/2007 09:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Btw, i am getting that Chess Endgame Training book as well. It seems really good.

1/05/2007 09:35:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Edwin: we didn't talk about the circles. I guess we will at some point.

1/05/2007 10:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay. Well, i am really interested in what he has to say about some kind of structured training.

1/05/2007 11:27:00 PM  
Blogger takchess said...

You can spend a lifetime studying the Ruy. Which is likely time well spent.
I have this book which I like. Read the review for a good discription

1/06/2007 11:32:00 AM  
Blogger Pale Morning Dun - Errant Knight de la Maza said...

I have read elsewhere that to know the Ruy Lopez is to know chess. Indeed! I'm glad he didn't tell you to play 1.d4. ;)

1/06/2007 08:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guru Josh doesn't seem to be hung up on openings at all.

Not that he hasn't prepared openings, but he feels that middlegames and endgames are what chess is really all about.

He also seems to believe in confronting your weaknesses and fears directly.

I like the logic. I habitually play 1.d4, but what kind of a chess player would I be if I did OK with d4 but fell apart with 1.e4?
I should start playing 1.e4, just to bust down that mental barrier.

Dan Heisman told me pretty much the same thing- that opening study is very over-rated.

1/08/2007 09:53:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Funky: pretty much everyone rated over 2000 tells me not to worry about opening study. Endgame and middlegame is the key, they say, especially since I have limited time. The 'traps' in openings are just tactics, so tactical study should prepare me against any major traps.

OTOH, at-home opening study saves a lot of time OTB, and I'm not doing the circles because I'm good at tactics. Why not study the opening home to maximize the chances of reaching a badass middlegame (which I can then convert into a loss like I did in a tournament this weekend, which I'll post about soon).

1/08/2007 10:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, here's my take on opening study.

I'd rather just suck at chess than have to read "database-dump" opening books to get better.

So any opening book better damn well be an interesting read.

I really don't care about what the opening is- I just want to read something that holds my interest and is well-written.

Matthew Sadler's "Queen's Gambit Declined" definitely falls into that category.

I haven't read it yet, but Lev Alburt's "Pirc Alert" supposedly falls into that category- it is on my list of eventual chess books to read.

In the "Starting Out" Everyman series, some authors are better than others- Neil McDonald gets my two thumbs up- Byron Jacobs thumbs down.
Chris Ward and Joe Gallagher rank a bit below Neil McDonald.

1/08/2007 11:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neat! I can think of several local players who just are to fast to follow. I hope he doesn't rush you!

1/12/2007 03:02:00 AM  
Blogger Zweiblumen said...

I've considered getting in touch with one of the chess coaches around here and taking some lessons. A couple of them say they have sort of a "3 lesson introductory thing" for weaker players.

One thing I would want in a chess coach would be that he not try to mess with my openings. At my level (almost 1300) I think any reasonable opening can work, as long as I stick with it all the time. For me the key is to get comfortable with the positions. A strong player who is a friend of mine had the opposite opinion of your coach: when he found out that I played e4 e5 as black he said that it might not be such a good idea. He said that instead of putting myself in a situation where I had to learn all different kinds of positions at once, I should pick an opening where I could focus on learning one type of position, and then move on from their. Each coach is going to have his own style, and both approaches sound somewhat reasonable to me.

I'm going to stick with my rep: I'm just getting comfortable with the kinds of positions I get, and it's starting to help me a lot, I think.

Hmm, I should do a mini post on the rep that I've chosen, it occurs to me.

1/23/2007 01:11:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Zweil: I tend to agree about openings.
At my level it just ain't that important. OTOH, I have hired Jonathan as my coach partly as an experiment: I'm gonna listen to his advice. I think openings is one place where coaches vary a lot (though nearly all of them will say that you shouldn't worry about them until you reach ~1500 or so).

Also, before I saw him I was already thinking I needed to switch to the Ruy, for all the reasons I've already given. Reading Euwe's Master vs Amateur is what convinced me of that. If I felt strongly that the Bishop's was better, or that I wanted to stick with it, I would probably have put up more of a fight.

1/23/2007 01:56:00 PM  

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