A Foundation for Beginners Forty Four

So last week, I suggested that tactics wasn’t the be all, end all to good chess playing. It takes a balanced combination of chess skills to be a successful player. However, I don’t want you to think that tactics is secondary to mastering the game. You have to be both a tactical player and a strategic player to reach the pinnacle of your chess skills. You have to be an all around good player. This week, I want to talk about how you become an all around good player. I’m taking the time to do this now because we’ve covered a lot of ground as far as beginning theory and practice goes, and will be covering even more ground later in this series of article.

First, let’s define an all around good player. I want you to become a great player, maybe even the best player of all time! However, you need to learn how to walk before you can run. This means you have to become good at chess before you can become great at it! The mastery of anything requires balancing theory and practice. Theory is the studying of the game through books, etc, while the practice part is simply taking what you’ve learned in those books and applying it to your games. However, chess has so wide a body of theory that a student of the game can easily become lost. I was a musician for forty years. I became a good guitar player because I was able to balance theory and practice. In music, this is a fairly easy task. You learn music theory, how to read sheet music, listen to the playing of others and then practice what you’ve learned. Chess mastery takes this same approach. However, it’s more difficult because there is a much larger body of theory to digest.

To start with, the game of chess is divided into three phases, the opening, middle and endgame. Each of these phases has its own large set of principles. Then you have to learn tactics, which is equally difficult. In the end, there is a seemingly insurmountable amount of knowledge to digest and apply to your game. Many players who end up in between beginner and advanced player, end up in such a position because they become specialists. They might be great when it comes to opening theory but play a poor middle game. They might be good at tactics but become lost when there are no tactical opportunities in the middle-game. You have to be good at everything related to the game to become a good chess player. How do you do that?

This is the hard part. Really? Isn’t the actual studying part of your chess education the hardest part of an improvement program? Certainly, being able to understand the game’s many principles takes a great deal of hard work. However, there are plenty of tools available to help you learn. So many, in fact, that chess students often become overwhelmed. There are so many books, DVDs and software programs out there that it’s hard to know where to start. This large volume of learning materials can cause the beginner to spend more time in one area of study while all but ignoring the other areas of study. The secret to becoming an all around good player is creating a balanced program of study.

The first step is to list your playing assets and liabilities. Make three lists, one for the opening, one for the middle and one for the endgame. Within each list, note the areas you are most comfortable with as assets. Then note which areas give you trouble and consider those your liabilities. This gives you a starting point that tells you where you need the most amount of work (your liabilities). It’s important to have a complete list. Don’t forget to include tactics and pawn issues. What if you’re a beginner who really doesn’t know everything that should be included in these lists. Find a chess book for beginners. Look through the table of contents and use that as the format for your list. Don’t feel bad if most of your lists have more liabilities than assets. The point of this list is to provide a factual framework for your studies. My first list was all liabilities with the exception of the game’s rules. Those I completely understood!

Next, you need to look at each game phase and the liabilities you listed. The phases with the greatest number of liabilities will require the most amount of attention. However, and this is really important, don’t just study the principles and concepts associated with those liabilities. You simply need to put more time into those liabilities. The trick here is study every part of the game, spending more time on areas with more liabilities, but not ignoring lesser liabilities. It’s about balance. You’ll also find that some of your assets will help you with your liabilities.

The problem I brought up with tactics last week, brings me to the next problem beginning students have, studying one area because it’s fun and ignoring other areas because they are boring. Kids love tactics because they are exciting and can change a losing game into a winner. On the other hand, kids think the endgame is boring and tend to avoid endgame studies as if it were the plague. These students get used to winning games with their tactical skills and then end up in an endgame. Their opponent, who studied the endgame, beats them easily. The bottom line is this: Chess is a game that has a start and and ending. It has three phases, the opening, middle and endgame. You have to have a good skill set in each of these phases regardless of whether or not you’re able to beat your opponent early on because you will play against better players who will drag you through all three game phases. If you’re not knowledgeable regarding those three phases, you’ll run into real trouble.

I suggest dividing your study time up to cover all of your skill set liabilities, spending more time on areas of concern (areas with more liabilities) but still spending time strengthening areas you comfortable with. Study everything, but spend some extra time on things that give you more grief. It’s a balancing act but it’s not that hard to stay upright if you delegate your time wisely.

If you’re like most beginners, you’ll have a large mixed list of liabilities. This means you’ll be jumping from topic to topic. To make things easier, stick to working through liabilities one game phase at a time. Start with problems you’re having during the opening. Once you’ve dedicated some study time to this game phase, go on to the middle-game, and then the endgame. You can break things up by doing opening problems one day, middle-game problems the next day, and endgame problems the day after that. Just make sure to cover everything.

I suggest going through what you’ve learned over the last forty plus articles in this series and making an assets and liabilities list. Divide that list into two categories, opening and middle-game issues. Then go through those problems, dedicating a specific amount of time to each. I recommend using YouTube videos for instruction. Many videos are ten to fifteen minutes long and will cover what you need help with. Go onto YouTube and do a search for exactly what you need help with, such as “avoiding doubled pawns” or “how to maintain good pawn structure.” You would be surprised at how many chess videos there are that are geared to very specific problems. However, take a look at the comment section of the YouTube page first because that will give you an idea regarding how good the video is. Also, if the video seems too complicated, try another video. Some videos may be over your head in terms of skill set. Look for known chess names presented the videos.

In the end, you need to be a well rounded player not a specialist. It is better to have an adequate knowledge of the entire game than specialized knowledge about a single phase. Balance your studies and you’ll improve at a faster rate. Speaking of faster, avoid videos that claim to greatly speed up your improvement. It takes time to become a good chess player and no one has been able to turn a beginner into a seasoned, strong player in 30 days or less. Slow and steady should always be your course. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Hugh Patterson

Author: Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat). View all posts by Hugh Patterson

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