Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Bare Essentials

Yesterday, at the pet store, a little girl was bawling her eyes out. "I want a guinea piiiiiggggg!"

The mother patiently explained, "You can't have a guinea pig. Besides, you have one at home and you never play with it."

The girl wailed, "I want another one!!!!!"

My wife thinks this not much different than my chess book habit. We have a truce: I get to buy chess books, and she gets to buy clothes.

My "intended audience" for this blog are people that already play tournament chess or rated chess games online. They already know the rules, the values of the different pieces, how to read chess notation, and most likely use a computer to help them analyze and store their games.

However, maybe you're a scholastic player that just started playing, but you're getting beaten badly at the club. Maybe you're like me, and later in life something triggered a desire to learn more about the game. I want to make a few suggestions to those just starting out in chess, to help "bring them up to speed."

You can spend an awful lot of money on chess books, software and equipment. However, you don't have to. Some people just "have" to get the latest version of their favorite chess program, or just "have" to get that book on some opening they never play but that got rave reviews. I haven't been involved directly with scholastic players, but I'm willing to bet that parents often fall into two traps: getting books or equipment that their child doesn't use, or buying whatever book or program their child "has" to have.

I'm going to suggest a list of "bare essentials" that will provide the most bang for their buck. Some of the specific recommendations are a matter of taste, but if you stick with the general strategy you shouldn't go wrong.

1. The first things you need to know are the rules (including castling kingside and queenside, en passant capturing, and stalemate), and how to read and write chess notation. I'm assuming most readers of this are well beyond this. However, if one of the above terms was unfamiliar to you or your child, you probably want to tackle this before plunking down money on more advanced material.

2. Next, you need to know basic tactics...forks, pins, skewers ("X-ray attacks"), removal of the guard, deflection, and so on. I am going to argue on this blog, very strongly, that tactics is by far the most important thing you can spend time on. There is a lot to choose from in this category, but in general any book that explains the value of the pieces and the basic tactics mentioned above will be a good place to start. You can start with one or two of the books below, and add more challenging ones as you progress.

My two personal recommendations are out of print, but you may be able to find them online or in a used book store:

  • The Chess Tutor: Elements of Combinations by Leslie Ault. My first copy that I obtained as a kid was lost when I moved. I found another used copy and foolishly sold it to a friend. This book should have become a classic, in my opinion.
Unfortunately, if a book is good and out of print, it's probably expensive when you find it. For books in print, check out a book such as Sierawan's Winning Chess Tactics. I have not personally viewed a copy of Chess Tactics for Kids by Murray Chandler, but I've looked over his previous book How to Beat your Dad at Chess, and was impressed. The latter book is devoted to mating combinations, so those two books together would probably be an excellent place to start. If you're an adult learner, don't let the books titles, cover art, and your pride stand in the way.

One free resource for practicing chess tactics is the Chess Tactics Server, which I've just started using. One downside is that your performance rating is related to how quickly you solve the problem, so it encourages superficial thinking. Think of it as more of a drill to practice your ability to recognize tactical patterns quickly.

I could make many, many suggestions for studying chess tactics. I'll just say that time spent solving tactical problems is never wasted.

3. Test your newly-acquired chess kung-fu by joining a chess club and playing rated games. In the United States, this means joining the USCF and finding a local club. You can also play rated games online, for free (e.g. the Free Internet Chess Server) or by paid subscription (e.g. the Internet Chess Club, which is where I play most of my games). The point of playing rated games is that you can be matched against players of roughly the same playing strength. No one likes losing all the time, and beating much weaker players isn't going to help you improve your chess. Also, the rating gives an indication of how much progress you're making as a player, and gives an incentive to try your hardest each and every game.

Nowadays, playing chess online is the easy option, but there are many disadvantages. One is that most games are played at fast speeds, so bad habits tend to get reinforced. This is one of the problems I'm currently battling. Also, stronger players at your chess club will be able to go over your games and point out your mistakes. You may even find a local master willing to give lessons.

4. Now that you've played several games against other people, get software that allows you to store your old games and analyze them. I now use the Chessbase products Fritz 9 and Chessbase 9 , but there are cheaper options for people just starting out. The main thing is that you want to be able to:
  • store your games for future reference
  • analyze your games for tactical errors
  • read databases of games obtained from the internet or elsewhere
When I started out, I found a cheap program called Extreme Chess that was essentially a very old version of Fritz (I believe using the engines of Fritz 3 and 4). If you don't want to shell out the money for the latest Fritz, any older version will do. At the time I'm writing this, I see Extreme Chess for sale online for less than $3. Chessbase also has a free version of their older database software called "Chessbase Lite". It took some trial and error to figure out how to use it, but it worked well enough.

The most valuable ability of a program like Fritz or Chessmaster is that it can analyze your own games and find your mistakes. They're great at pointing out "you missed a mate in 3" or "you could have won a pawn here". Programs like Fritz and the Chessmaster series allow you to play against the computer as well. I think that training with the computer is a good way to correct yourself of bad habits, because computers will mercilessly punish your mistakes. The computers are so strong these days that it takes some fiddling around to get a program like Fritz to play almost as bad as you do (my understanding is that Chessmaster is a bit easier to use in this regard).

Whereas a program like Fritz is a computer opponent and analyzer with some database features, Chessbase itself is a chess database with some analysis features. Chessbase will not analyze your game while you sleep, or play a game with you, but it will analyze the current position if you tell it to. Chessbase is useful in finding things like:

  • here is where your game becomes different from all other games in its huge database of games
  • in this opening at move 12, the following 9 moves have been played by masters, and 12.d4 has the highest win percentage for white
  • you have played the Ruy Lopez opening as white 451 times in the last 7 years, and your opponent has responded with the Steinitz Defense 23% of the time.
  • here are all the games with players rated above 2400 with and endgame of same-coloured bishops and with pawns on g2, f3 and h4 vs. pawns on g6 and h5
You get the idea. Fun stuff, useful stuff, but is it worth the $168 for the Chessbase 9 starter package? Not if you're just starting out.

There's oodles of software out there, for both mac and PC, both commercial and free. I like the Chessbase products because they not only read the standard .pgn database files, but they also read their own .cbh and .cbf-format chessbases that allow for extra commentary like drawing arrows or key squares, or inserting diagrams that will appear when the game is printed out.

5. If you're still having fun and eager to learn at this point, get one basic book on endgames, and a book or two on strategy. My recommendation for endgames is Pandolfini's Endgame Course, although it has some typos. Just the Facts! by Lev Alburt and Nikolay Krogius is similar, but with fewer positions and more discussion. I could mention others, but pick one and read it cover to cover for starters.

I strongly recommend Best Lessons of a Chess Coach by Sunil Weeramantry and Ed Eusebi, and How To Reassess Your Chess by Jeremy Silman. However, if you're a new player or a young child you may want to look through a copy of each and make sure it's not too advanced. These are the two books I stumbled upon as a young adult that opened my eyes to what "real chess" was. The first book, in particular, was revelation after revelation after revelation. I have a terrible memory for master games, but the first game in that book demonstrated how a knight on a safe, advanced square (or "outpost") could be a terrible, terrible thing, and I have often used that idea in my own games. The latter book is close to being the bible of positional chess, and will teach you how to analyze a chess position and choose good moves.

I don't think beginners need to study a lot of chess strategy (tactics is far more important), but they need to be introduced to basic elements of strategy. Understanding positional chess helps you to choose good moves (or avoid bad ones, like weakening pawn moves) when there are no clear tactical shots.

6. Don't worry about openings at this point. I didn't forget to include suggested books on openings...I deliberately am not suggesting one at this point. I intend to write about openings soon, but at this point all you need to know is that you should get your pieces out as quickly as you can. If your chess program has a built-in opening book (and most do), you can compare what you play to what the "book" moves are and decide what you yourself like to play. You will go through an awkward phase where your pieces seem to get tangled up, or you realize your knight works better on d7 in a certain opening rather than c6, or you get punished for not castling soon enough, but you'll learn from your mistakes. At your level, actually learning "opening theory" is largely a waste of time because your opponents will also be playing lousy moves not found in any of the books. Getting your army mobilized faster than your opponent, and having a sharp eye for tactics, will be far more important.

To summarize:
  • learn the basic rules and tactics
  • play rated games against people, both face-to-face and over the internet if you can
  • use software to store your games and analyze them for errors
  • learn the basics of endgames and chess strategy
All of that can be done with free (or cheap) software, 3-5 books, and membership dues to your chess federation. In return you get hours (years, hopefully) of entertainment, and you get to meet and play other people that share your interest. I think that's a pretty good return on investment.


Ryan Emmett said...

Great post.

I have lots of guinea-pigs sitting on my bookcase!!!

Blue Devil Knight said...

I had never seen that 'how to see ahead' book. Cool. Too bad it is out of print. Reinfeld I find dry and unreadable, but perhaps Chernev helped him out with that :)

Seirewan's book on tactics is awful in my opinion. To any beginner I would recommend Littlewood's 'Chess tactics.' More concise, more problems, better writing. Less fluff. Nunn's 'Learn chess tactics' is also great.

Chess Teaching said...

I have published a lot of chess lessons on my chess lessons blog site, starting with the rules of chess. If someone is interested in this chess lessons the best starting place at my site is probably the chess lessons index page. If someone is also interested in some of the other posts the home page may be a better place to start.

Anonymous said...

I am a late starter at chess. Like many others, I also rely mostly on internet for information about how to improve my games. The last three years I have been playing chess more or less seriously, has taught me two lessons: 1. Fundamentals are really the magic bullets and perhaps Capablanca's 'Chess fundamentals' is the best book to illustrate this. Earlier I had a bad habit of not paying much attention to the simpler position (rather got bored and always searched for tactical and complex position to solve), but then I realised it is very important to understand these simple positions. For example a game which provide almost symmetry after 15 or 20 moves are interesting to study because there are less material on the board, still the fundamental weak points and strong points of each other can be exploited with a good plan. This habit of plan is crucial as it enables one to constract a tactical position on the board and if someone is constructing it, it can be safely assumed that he will be able to exploit the mistakes of his opponents when presented.
2. It is very important to learn some of the opening system. Not the moves in isolation, but the entire system, like sicilian, kings indan etc. Why it is important, because the system is always based upon certain positional strength and weakness. Once such knowledge is gained, tactical construction becomes easier during the games.
Your suggested books are fine, also the point you made about tactics are very very true, but it is much more fun if one can keep constructing tactical opportunities during his/her games. Creating chances for oneself sometimes may lead to disaster, for example missing one shot of the opponent, but that would also provide a hell lot of information regarding the position and would also make the player more careful in future.
In line with the suggestions regarding books and softwares, I would like make the following suggestions:

For the players > 1200 FIDE elo

1. Chess fundamentals - Jose Raul Capablanca
2. Russian Chess - Bruce Pondolfini
3. Silman's Complete Endgame course (Note that for endgame Silman's book is fine from begining to 2000 elo)

For the players > 1400 FIDE elo
1. Logical Chess - Move by Move - Irving Chernev
2. Silman's Complete Endgame course
3. Capablanca's best chess endings - Irving Chernev
4. My System - Aron Nimzowitch (I am sure that for many 1400 this book would be a difficult but if one remains persistant it has magic in it and better than Silmans How to reassess books)
5. My Chess Career - Jose Raul Capabalnca (Now it is time to start reading Classical games by Classical players)

For Players > 1600 FIDE elo

Just keep adding the followings -

1. My 60 Memorable Games - Bobby Fisher
2. My best games of chess - Alexander Alekhine
3. Tal's Winning Chess Combinations - Mikhail Tal and Viktor Khenkin
4. Power Chess - Paul Keres
5. Art of Attack in Chess - Vladimir Vukovic

Player > 1800 FIDE elo

I don't know, I am not there yet.

Thanks and Best regards!!


Anonymous said...

I would add that a great resource is reading through master games. Dan Heisman has a list that are best suited to beginners. He recommends starting with Chernov's Logical Chess and avoiding grandmaster collections for the most part because they tend to be aimed at a more fluent audience.
For tactics I would highly recommend Peshka's tactics for beginners. Much more accessable than CT-ART, which is for more advanced students. Bain also has a book on tactics that is available electronically, porting easily with Fritz, which allows you to play beyond the actual puzzle.
Great post.
-Future Grand Patzer (now just Patzer)