One of the things I’ve been mentioning over this series of articles is the idea of studying the games of master level players to aid in your improvement. However, I didn’t mention which of the masters you should study. Sorry about that! The reason I’m saying sorry is because not all master games are suitable for beginners. While you could randomly choose a master level game to study and get something out of it (knowledge-wise), you might not come away with a great deal of improvement due to the complexity of that specific game and the player’s advanced techniques.
Many modern players use computer programs to help them prepare for their games. The chess engines, the brains of the program that calculate the outcome of a specific move idea, often come up with a complex series of moves that go way over the heads of the beginner. If I have my beginning students play through the game of a modern player, they tend to become lost quickly, unable to determine why a specific move was made. This occurs because the beginner doesn’t have a skill set that allows them to understand more subtle moves. Beginners need to see the game’s principles in action clearly from move to move. Therefore, I have them play through the games of a specific group of players, all considered masters of their time. Wait, isn’t a master a master, and didn’t I just say that the games of masters can be too complex for the beginner? Let me explain.
The master level games I use in conjunction with my teaching come from the pre computer chess era, and there is a difference between pre and post computer era players. In fact, the masters I use when teaching my beginning students come from the 19th century, the 1800s (and some early 20th century games).
Some players and teachers will tell you that you need to study the games of contemporary masters if you want to become a strong player. There is truth to this. However, this applies to more experienced students, not absolute beginners. This doesn’t man that I wouldn’t show a combination of moves that led to a stunning tactic from a modern master. I just wouldn’t show a full game to a beginner. So what’s the difference between an old master and a contemporary master?
Simplicity in execution for one! I teach using games from the classical age of chess, the 1800s, because the game’s principles are clearly presented in near textbook form. Take openings, for example. If you play through games from the 1800s, you’ll find that most of the openings played are mainline rather than variations. A mainline opening tends to demonstrate the opening principles more clearly. Games from this period also tend to employ openings that are easier to learn, such as the Italian or the Evan’s Gambit. Moves made during the opening of these games tend to be very clear regarding intent. Remember, you’re trying get a grasp of game principles for the first time, so you need examples that blatantly demonstrate those principles!
When you’re teaching opening principles to a beginner, you want to reinforce those principles by showing your students games in which the players employ opening moves very clearly. I teach the Italian opening before I teach the Ruy Lopez or Spanish opening. I do so because the Italian opening more clearly demonstrates the direct principles. The Ruy Lopez is a great opening that everyone should know. However, it can be difficult for a beginner to grasp the third move of the Spanish opening 3. Bb5, which indirectly controls the board’s center. The point is that you want to teach direct control of the board’s center, the goal of the opening, before you get into the concept of indirect control. You have to learn how to walk before you learn how to run.
One master I rely on a lot for my beginning students is Paul Morphy. Why? His games clearly show the opening principles in action as well as middle-game tactics. Also, his games tend to be exciting. They are full of fast and brilliant attacks and beginners love attacking. Many of them tend to be short in length. Developing patience is a skill that takes time and you can’t expect a beginner to exercise patience from day one. Shorter games tend to keep a beginner’s attention and don’t overload them with too much information. A problem for many teachers is going over the heads of their students. By this I mean they teach concepts that are too advanced. This can happen when the games they use for their lessons are too complex in nature. Keep it simple with beginners!
In addition to to Paul Morphy, I also use the games of Wilhelm Steinitz, Karl Ernst Adolf Anderssen, and Emanuel Lasker, to name a few. The games of these masters that work best for absolute beginners are those games in which these master’s opponents are not masters. These players are generally individuals who participated in an exhibition match in which the master plays multiple players simultaneously. Look for games that are 25 move or less because they tend to have more tactical fireworks and won’t bore your students (or you) to death!
The trick here is to study games that clearly demonstrate the principles you’re studying. As you gain a greater skill set, you can study more modern games. However, you’ll want to make the switch only when you clearly understand the games you’ve been studying. There’s no magic number in terms of time. It all depends on you. I generally have my beginning students study classical are games for six to twelve months. Then we move on to more complex games. You cant rush this process or you’ll end up detracting from your progress. Again, patience is key. Take you time and you’ll be rewarded with a strong grasp of the principles. Here’s a game from the classical era to enjoy until next week!