Friday, August 14, 2009

The Player's Laboratory

A.S. Suetin wrote a book titled "Three Steps to Chess Mastery", Pergamon Press, 1982. Here are some excerpts (in some cases, not verbatim) from the section titled "The Player's Laboratory". This book contains some of the best self-training advice you'll find outside a Dvoretsky/Yusupov book.
Working on One's Own Games
For a player wishing to improve, the cold analysis of mistakes is not enough. The problem is simultaneously to establish the psychological cause of these mistakes. Not sparing your pride, you should frankly re-establish the course of your thinking, endeavoring to give answers to approximately the following questions:
  1. What specific variations did you calculate, when considering your moves, especially at the turning points of the game? It is very important to note what you missed in your calculations, and what your opponent showed you in your joint analysis after the game.
  2. What considerations were you guided by in choosing your plan?
  3. When evaluating your positional mistakes, endeavor to understand their cause. Were they a result of an insufficiently deep understanding of the position, or of tactical oversights? After all, oversights can often lead to positionally unfavorable situations.
A commentary on a game, irrespective of its character, should definitely:
  • show the turning points of the game
  • disclose the course of the thinking of the two players, and, in particular, show specific calculations
  • trace the strategic outline of the game
  • convey the feelings of the players;
Here are a few simple but essential rules: Do not be one-sided in your analysis, by examining only 'your' variations. Endeavour to look into the ideas of your opponent. Each time that you point out a mistake, indicate the correct continuation. Do not forget the analysis is not a practical game. It requires more specific proof than intuitive decisions.
The Study of Master Games
A harmony between evaluation and calculation in your play can be achieved only if you constantly practice analysis. Therefore it is essential to analyze master games, to be able to understand correctly their ideas in their annotations, and also to evaluate the quality of the annotation. There are two main trends in the "Method of Annotation":
  1. Give preference to evaluations of a general nature. Specific variations merely illustrate and confirm the general ideas. A good example of this style of annotation is Bronstein's Zurich 1953 Tournament Book.
  2. Out of variations, you deduce an evaluation of the position, i.e. proceed from the particular to the general. Rarely do you give broad generalizations, but give obvious preference to the detailing of analysis, and the study of latent combinational resources. A good example of this style is Chigorin.

Thus there are two methods of annotation, and both are perfectly lawful. Each reflects chess reality: deductive (from the general to the particular) - the strategic content of a game, and inductive (from the particular to the general) - the tactical content.
The modern way of annotating a game is as though to synthesize both methods, harmoniously combining specific analysis with generalizing evaluations. Alexander Alekhine was a potent example of this synthesized approach to annotation.
The ability to make a critical evaluation of a commentary being studied, the ability to think independently, are essential qualities for an analyst.
Work with Literature
A disdain for the reading of methodological works and especially the study of information is fraught with unpleasant consequences. The 'natural player' will never attain any great heights. On the other hand, the reading of chess books is by no means a simple matter. It should not be forgotten that chess material, in what ever form it is taken, always demands active perception. But this presupposes in particular a business-like, critical study of literature, which is not at all easy to attain. It should be mentioned that an over scrupulous tracing throughout 'from cover to cover' of even the most authoritative books can lead to a loss of lively individual thinking, to a loss of 'taste' for chess. How can some proportion be achieved here? I think that this depends on setting yourself a correct goal of improvement. And this is closely linked with the development of your analytical ability.
The Importance of Active Independent Perception in the Study of Source Material
Nimzovitch wrote in his book "How I Became A Grandmaster": "I took the book of the 1906 Nuremberg tournament with notes by Tarrasch, and gave it to a bookbinder, and asked him to sew into the book blank pages between each two pages of text. Then I began working through the games...Any results found were immediately noted down on the intermediate pages. I always 'played' for one of the two sides--either for White, or Black. I first endeavored to find the best move, and then looked at the move made in the game. In this way each 'game' lasted at least six hours. I consolidated my learning roughly as follows. In one of Salwe's games, a typical isolated queen's pawn position was reached: white knight at f3 and pawn at d4, black knight at d7 and pawn at e6 (in addition, each side had a mass of pieces). It turned out that White had no reason at all to hurry over the occupation of e5 with his knight, since within a few moves the black knight itself set off to attempt to reach d5, and thus, without any effort on the part of White, the square nevertheless fell into his hands. Such a state of affairs was immediately recorded by me on the blank pages, and, what's more, the point of it was not the purely chess content of the manoeuvre, but, so to speak, its psychological peculiarities. Frequently squares are vacated automatically. The result of my efforts was as follows:
  1. I had a prepared opening repertoire
  2. I became proficient at playing in a slow, waiting style, and I found it quite incomprehensible that formerly I could have sacrificed without an exact calculation...
  3. An important achievement was also the fact that, thanks to careful study of certain games, I began to understand the strategy of closed positions, and, in particular, grasped the principles of the pawn chain, and also partly of centralization."

Whatever chess book we study, we should always be able to separate the important from the second-rate, and disclose the essence of the problems raised, etc. And in studying chess, the art of critical analysis is always especially important.
The Test of Mastery
A player must first master various principles, schemes, and characteristic tactical and strategic devices. At the same time the development of one's thinking is preceded by the acquisition of combinative vision. This is also a complicated process: At first a player notices only simple threats, then he begins to see all sorts of double attacks, and, finally, that harmonic interaction which leads to combinations. Only after going through such a schooling does a player obtain the necessary basis, which allows him to use flexibly his knowledge and skill. The analysis of complex positions, where strategic and tactical factors are closely interlaced, is first and foremost very hard work. For the unprepared it may even be beyond their strength. Therefore, don't try to take too many steps at once. Get to know your true capabilities, each time, of course, setting yourself new problems. Along this path there is much disillusionment, causing annoyance and dissatisfaction. Without these bitter feelings you cannot get by. But remember that if you are dissatisfied, it means you are searching. This is one of the fascinations of the art of chess.

"Chess ennobles man, since it is full of disappointments" - Tartakower
The Analysis of Adjourned Games
The best teacher in mastering the art of analysis is practice: learning comes both during play, and in the subsequent study of a completed game. For the development of analytical skill, very much can be given, for example, by work on adjourned positions (this is currently outdated, but one can take a game and at move 39 or 40 'adjourn' the position and analyze from there for this exercise). The analysis of adjourned positions should be regarded not only from the practical point of view. Each well analyzed position increases the ability of a player. Experience has shown that it is precisely in the endgame that the largest number of mistakes is made by inexperienced players. Perhaps the small number of pieces on the board makes the study of the endgame a boring task for young players. But we can readily see what interesting, tactical variations can arise in the endgame positions.

Don't be Afraid to Take Risks
The most promising players are those who, from their very first steps, display analytical inquisitiveness. While their first attempts may not always be successful, what is important here is the initiative!
Where the Necessary is Combined with the Useful
For a young player, wishing to raise his standard of play, it is important, even essential, to make analysis an integral part of his home training. The starting position for this can (and should!) be most varied (after all, in practice one has to deal with all kinds of situations). But nevertheless, the emphasis should be on complicated middle game set-ups, full of tactical content. For the most part, such a criterion is well satisfied by positions arising at the transition from opening to middlegame in present-day openings.It is no accident that it is on such problem set-ups that the strongest players sharpen their analytical mastery. In this way a dual aim is achieved: the development of analytical skill, and a penetration into the jungle of a particular opening system, which one can add to one's 'armoury'. What generally happens is that, the deeper you go into the jungle of such positions, not only does the evaluation not become clearer, but often the player is faced with an even more confused picture. But this should not dismay the analyst. A knowledge of highly complicated, practically inexhaustible positions opens up enormous scope for the development of the most varied aspects of chess thinking. The result is that, along with the development of analytical potentialities, the player's genuine understanding of chess grows, without being confined within some formal framework. Also, the deeper your analysis of positions in the transition from opening to middle game, the greater advantage you gain over your future opponents. And in opening preparation, virtually the most important thing for the practical player is to be constantly ahead in your 'production secrets'. Thus, you should attempt to be a Sherlock Holmes of chess. And remember that each time you can get down to the essence of the problem by a combination of painstaking and inventive work, worthy of a clever detective. It is not all positions, arising on the transition from opening to middle game, that are full of specific content. But always, after the completion of mobilization, there arise a certain complex of strategic and tactical problems (provided, of course, that in the opening neither side has made some bad mistake, allowing the opponent quickly to gain a serious advantage). Therefore, when studying variations, you should attempt in particular to see the 'physical meaning'- the intrinsic strategic and tactical ideas. In short, when studying an opening (i.e., in essence, a specific middle game [specialization training]) you should not so much aim to remember the variations, but rather to study the most important critical positions that arise here. Otherwise, for the trees you may not be able to see the wood!
The Technique of Opening Preparation
When working on opening analysis, a player involuntarily encounters a very important problem - the correct organization of this work. Whatever one says, without the necessary order one cannot hope for success in chess. In work on one's opening repertoire, this is reflected in the correct selection of information for analysis. Indeed, without the necessary material on which to make a judgment, it is difficult to imagine and subsequent serious analysis. No less important is the habit of being systematic and orderly in the complex of specific and general chess knowledge. In this collecting of information it is important to have a sense of measure. It must be borne in mind that, in practice, the selection of material for an opening repertoire must be restricted to games which are the most important in the theoretical sense (this is what grandmasters and master do). Otherwise, there is the risk of 'drowning' in the abundance of material. Therefore, initially it is probably expedient to obtain in full games which interest you, with the most important specific comments on the opening and middle game. Of course, learning to choose the most important games, i.e. the information which deserves complete trust, is not an easy matter.

Practical Advice
The mastery of general principles undoubtedly assists the conscious perception of opening variations, and makes a player's thinking more economical and effective. But even so, a genuine knowledge of opening theory is impossible without the development of a special memory. This memory should be exercised by regular and sensible training. From your first steps you should beware of 'swotting up' multi tome encyclopedias. It can only kill your lively interest in chess, and hence your ability as a player. You can work correctly on the opening only while improving your overall standard of play. You should study the opening together with the ideas inherent in the subsequent middle game. What should you be guided by in your choice of opening? This is a problem every player has to face. You should not aim to remember as many variations as possible, but equally it is not good to overdo one and the same set-up. For tournament play you should build up a definite opening repertoire, consisting of a limited number of carefully worked out systems. Ways of working on opening theory depend to a great extent on the character of the player. Whether it should be a greater or lesser diversity of schemes, a deep analysis of a narrow range of variations, or play in a variety of strategic systems--this is a matter of taste. There are no general prescriptions. But to make it a rule to learn from your own games and from others', and not to repeat mistakes made earlier--this is an already patent prescription for everyone. In order to avoid such unpleasantness, you should make it a habit to investigate your opening mistakes, consistently accumulating and supplementing valuable experience. And we should point out once again that, in building up his opening repertoire, it is expedient for a young player to adopt systems rich in sharp play.