Monday, November 8, 2010

Building a Chess Foundation

Submitted by IM Silman
Ed Asked:
I enjoy chess and would like to progress. I am a smart fellow and play intuitive chess. It serves me well. However, when I run into someone with training, it is apparent.
What should I do?
Dear Ed:
What is “intuitive chess?” There’s a lot of definition wiggle room there. For example, if you play some horrible move, is it because you have bad intuition, or because of … what? I’m confused.
It’s like saying, “I build nuclear reactors. I have no real knowledge of the subject, but I use intuition, which serves me well, and …” Boom.
Personally, I have never taken a golf lesson. I’ve never read anything about the game. Yet, I play every week. I can’t really say that I use intuition, since when it’s time to pick a club, I just grab something, swing, and the ball usually flies over a fence or dribbles 5 or 6 feet. I have no golf foundation whatsoever, and thus intuition can’t work for me. Fortunately my weekly opponent is as clueless as me, so we expect to be horrible. And that’s perfectly okay – It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about having fun (and sometimes being clueless is fun).
In chess, intuition is based on a firm foundation. For example, the brilliant World Champion M. Tal obviously had that foundation, and when he spotted an interesting sacrifice, he would sometimes realize that it was impossible to properly calculate. However, if his intuition told him that it was worthwhile, he would do it. THAT is chess intuition. Great positional players often glance at the board and know what move should be played. No calculation, no deep thought, just a quick scan and their intuition kicks in and gives them the answer.
Unfortunately (as you readily admit), you don’t have that foundation of chess knowledge yet, so that’s what you need to acquire. Since you’re a professor (which you mention in the longer version of your question), I think you’ll completely agree with this – Imagine that you’re teaching advanced details of evolution and how various species evolve in different situations. Then a student says, “I can’t agree with any of this since my intuition tells me that man is just 6,000 years old and rode dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden.” That student can believe whatever he wants (I personally believe that the planet Earth rests on the back of a giant turtle), but he’s not going to pass your class.
So, after much preamble, we now have to address a simple question: How does one acquire that firm chess foundation? Here are some of the basics:
* Play as much as possible, and if you can play people a bit better than yourself, then don’t hesitate to do so!

* Go over master games whenever possible. You can do so slowly or quickly. When I started out, I bought the New York 1924 tournament book (notes by Alekhine) and lovingly went through every game.

* Learn basic endgame theory – Basic endgame mates (Queen vs. lone King, Rook vs. lone King, etc.), opposition, the Lucena Position, the Philidor Position, etc. If you don’t know this easy-to-learn stuff, then you’re flying blind!

* Study basic tactical devices (pins, forks, skewers, etc.), and learn basic mating patterns (back rank mate, smothered mate, the old pawn or Bishop on f6 and Queen on h6 followed by Qg7 mate setup, etc.).

* Create a basic opening repertoire that attracts you (gambits if you want to attack like a demon, more positional systems if you want to seek a more balanced game) and stick with it through thick and thin! Learn its ideas, expect to lose many games as you’re acclimatizing yourself to its patterns and quirks, and patch up the holes. Once you learn and love an opening system, it’s a lifelong affair (and if a spouse dares say, “It’s that opening or me!” you’ll quickly choose your true soul-mate, the opening).

I’ll add that my first opening love was the Accelerated Dragon. I stuck by it through thick and thin and, when I finally switched to the Caro-Kann (my mistress system), my heart still fluttered madly whenever I saw an Accelerated Dragon game.
That’s it! These simple things are fun, can be found in countless books (and online for free), and give you the kind of firm chess foundation that will serve you well for life.

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