Ten ways to know when a chess coach is good
This article is the logical continuation of the previous "10 ways to get free chess lessons from Masters." That article was for those who do not have the financial means to hire a coach. This one, however, is for those who are able, or are saving ferociously, to hire one. But before you put your hard earned money into someone else’s hands, reading this guide is recommended.
Unfortunately, the only way to have absolute confidence that the teacher is right for you is by having some sessions with him. If you cannot, then check with his students about how satisfied they are, or check online reviews. If you have the chance, show this guide to one of his pupils.
But before the ten tips, here is a brief introduction about chess coaches and chess computers:
There is debate among fans as to whether or not to hire a coach. For me, the debate is similar to the belief that chess engines can replace a chess master for game analysis. There is a perception that persists, that the best coach is the one who plays the best chess. However, the thinking processes of the newbie and the grand master are on two entirely different planes! The master may be used to dealing with abstract theory and concepts but the new player is still struggling to lay down a solid foundation to build upon. Imagine how ineffective it would be, for both parties involved, if a mathematician at NASA were to teach 4 year olds how to count.
The best person to teach a beginner is someone who is not particularly strong but is in love with, and understands, the game. As the beginner advances, he will want to work with someone 150-200 rating points above him (300 maximum). Any higher than that, and the experience may become strenuous for both as they simply may just not understand and communicate effectively with each other. Of course, there are exceptions.
With computers, there is almost no communication. It will point out your blunders, but not the subtle concepts behind an innocuous move. With your serious mistakes, there is no benefit as there is no way to explain to it the mental process which you followed. Also, if the mistake is purely tactical in nature, it is likely to happen again as it cannot advise you how to correct your mental candidate move selection process
Also, in most cases, assessments of positional moves by the computer are not entirely optimal. They are based on a mathematical model that has nothing to do with our way of thinking. In such positions, they will often miss the strongest move or plan – much like anyone else (or possibly even more-so)!
And now the final point (or the ten endpoints): Will computers do what a good coach does or should do? Read and comment:
A chess coach is not good when:
1- He spends all of your precious time playing with you. Unless you have specifically hired him for that, you won’t get much benefit if all your coach does is spend your time playing blitz with you. This is an essential characteristic of some strong players who are hired to coach, but they really have no idea what to do otherwise. This doesn’t do much other than provide you with practice, and even then, blitz is not the best way to leverage your time and money. In this situation, renegotiate your contract, call for a price cut, and play longer games with post game analysis. And look for another coach.
2- He does not analyze your games. The analysis of the student’s games is the most effective way for a coach to get into the head of his pupil and understand his strengths and weaknesses. If he doesn't provide this, and dedicates his time elsewhere, then there is something wrong with his approach.
3- He likes to teach you his openings - not yours. This is closely related to analyzing your game - if he doesn’t do this and you have no established repertoire, he cannot help you with choosing openings and defenses that match your style. If you already have a repertoire (which you understand and feel comfortable with), then he is simply trying to convince you to play what is easy for him to teach and you may not be prepared to play.
4- On the other hand, the coach may be a scholar in terms of the opening, but to the exclusion of other critical aspects of the game. Of course, this can just as easily apply to endgames, tactics, or any other component. Obviously, it would be ideal to work with an interdisciplinary team on each specialty, but I doubt that the average player possesses the financial resources to manage this. Find a trainer that is universal and not mono-themed.
5- He bombards you with a bunch of chess exercises (usually tactical) without a specific plan. That is, he takes out the first book he has and just hands you the diagrams, irrespective of your and the puzzle’s rating levels. Given that tactics are the easiest skills to teach and acquire in chess (and also the most prone to getting rusty) one should take into account other deeper exercises, including positional ones or endings. (Have I mentioned that the only way to know what kinds of exercises you need is by analyzing your games?)
6- If he analyzes your games and points out the mistakes but without explaining any reasoning behind them. He may point out errors such as "That's a bad move," and then provide a dizzying shower of variants. In the best case scenario, he may give you a brief positional explanation such as "because you give up the bishop pair." If you are still in doubt about whether this applies to your situation or not, then you’re more than likely to be dealing with it now.
7- If he analyzes your game, but has no plan to eliminate the errors found in your game. The whole analysis may have been wonderful, and you may have understood what your mistakes were, but the coach should have a plan to address the flaws in your thought process and the gaps in your chess knowledge. You should both reach some consensus on what you should do when he is not with you: either to resolve certain exercises against the clock (no matter whether they are tactical, positional, or endgames), tips to apply in your future games, or writing a report about an opening line or a positional issue. In short, a plan is absolutely required to address your weaknesses and to take advantage of your strengths.
8- He does not provide you with extra-curricular study. The key word is “extra”. He may be a good coach, but he is human and can have lapses because he is focused more on a particular issue than with trying to increase your overall chess knowledge. Chess is vast subject, so if he hasn’t recommended any books to study beyond what you have planned, then ask. It doesn’t need to be on exactly the same subject. For example, you may be working on your middle game, but an endgame book may complement your study nicely.
9- If he does not help you solve your psychological chess problems. For example, you may always suffer from severe time trouble, but he has ignored the issue or offered a quick, ineffective “band-aid” solution which doesn’t address the root cause (such as playing blitz in our example). Or you may feel uncertain playing a particular opening variation, or you may always lose to the same weaker opponent. These issues may not arise in normal chess chat – your coach needs to know you intimately and some do not know how to develop this bond.
10- He does not push you to the limits of your abilities. This advice should not be abstract: “What? You can’t calculate more than five moves? Well, try six.” Or “You don’t think endings can win a game? Okay, next week be prepared to show me how to do rook and pawn versus rook endgames”. Or “You think Karpov is boring? Ok, take these 5 (10, 15 ...) games from Karpov, and I want you to explain me why he won.” You get the idea...
I have a more concrete example in this last regard. I have two brothers who take classes with me. The eldest, at age 15, has a rating of 1860, and his brother, 5 years younger, is 1400. One time, when explaining to them the mechanics and application of calculation, I set up particularly difficult position. After some of the variations and sub-variations began to surface, the little one started to lose track of the position… but he didn’t give on up his efforts. We stopped every 4 moves, allowing him to describe the position and then we continued. It took us some time to get to the end, but he never relented. The factors that prompted this were that he would not yield to his brother´s advantage, and because I would not yield to the temptation to look for another, easier problem.
I understand why some masters yield to the demands of certain students who want to train only on what and how they want. However, if the coach wants to be consistent, honest, and to bring something ultimately beneficial to the student, he should not bow before pressure.
Of course, dear reader, this is the opposite for you. If a respected coach (who reasonably complies with the points mentioned above) says you need something that does not agree with your own opinion, think twice before refusing and forcing the coach to do something against his will. Believe it or not, but your hurt yourself twice because both your savings and your chess will be negatively impacted.
To close this article (which, as always, was longer than I had desired and planned) I want to discuss the compatibility between the student and coach. There is an excellent article about this issue written by Jeremy Silman in his famous ex-column questions and answers, here in chess.com. Please, allow me to paste a small excerpt:
"Even the most highly regarded coach can be wrong for you if there’s no connection, or if his expertise is in areas that don’t affect your needs. But a chess coach (private lessons) can be hugely beneficial if he’s a skilled/experienced teacher, if his rates fit your budget, if he genuinely wants to help your game, and if you feel in tune with him.
A good chess teacher will tell you how to maximize your tournament experience. He will help you create an opening repertoire that suits your tastes, style, and skills. He’ll make sure you know basic endgames. And he’ll work on tactics and positional chess to make sure you’re as well rounded as possible."
Never better. For those who want to read the whole article, here is the link.