Learner Series #4

Welcome to edition 4 of our learner series! Alex started playing chess back in the summer of 2016. His chess.com Blitz rating was under 1000, and now it’s over 1500! 

GENERAL OVERVIEW

How old are you and how long have you been playing chess?


I am 32 years old and have been playing chess “seriously” for 3.5 years.  My father taught me how to play when I was a kid, but we only played a handful of games. I never played in any tournaments, and my childhood friends did not play chess. 

When I was in college (around 2007) I met fellow student (and future NM) Matan Prilleltensky, who played me in a blindfold game or two.  Matan also introduced me to his friend, IM Marc Esserman, who happened to be in town.  We played one game, which went exactly as one would expect.  So, until that point in my life, the only opponents I can recall were my dad, and two really strong players!  

How many hours per week do you spend on chess?

4-6.

Chess website usernames?

Chess.com DarkHorse613 Lichess: This is a secret! See my explanation below!

What’s your current skill level or rating?

On Chess.com my Blitz rating is 1427 (down from a high of 1570), Rapid is 1521.  My Lichess Blitz rating is in the 1700’s. 

PLAYING OVERVIEW

OTB

Infrequently. Maybe around 3 games per month, usually with my neighbor.  He was rated over 1800 USCF as a kid.  We play without a clock.

Online

Roughly, 4-6 days per week.  I probably average about 5 hours of play per week.  I mostly play 5+5 on Chess.com and 5+3 on Lichess.  I also try to play Rapid as frequently as possible, but it’s hard to find uninterrupted time for longer time controls.

STUDYING OVERVIEW

Game Analysis

Analyzing one’s own games is definitely important, but it’s hard to find the time to analyze every single game.  I try to analyze at least one of my games from each online session.  Lately I’ve been compiling a google doc containing important positional and/or tactical ideas that I missed.  That way, I can really force myself to learn from my mistakes.

Tactics

I solve tactics pretty much every day.  Mostly on Chess.com, where my rating is presently 2305 (down from a high of 2468).  The importance of consistent study of tactics cannot be overstated.  However, what I believe is understated is how one should study tactics.  I don’t think using an online tactics trainer is the best idea when you’re first starting out, because if you’re using “rated” mode the problems become steadily harder and the positions are random. 

What beginners need is to learn tactics thematically, and on a simple level.  I recommend Maxim Blokh’s Combinative Motifs for this purpose.  Just focus on the lower level tactics until the themes become more familiar. 
A word of warning.  I believe that solving too many tactics as a beginner creates a “tactics bias,” where the player focuses only on his or her own offensive possibilities and not the opponent’s. 

I recommend Looking for Trouble by NM Dan Heisman, and Tune Your Chess Tactics Antenna by FM Emmanuel Neiman, for counteracting tactics bias.  The former book contains only defensive tactical puzzles.  The latter will help you increase your sense tactical possibilities for both sides, as the tactical “signals” that Neiman teaches apply to both sides.

Openings

This has not been my priority, for better or for worse.  I own a few opening books.  One on the Caro-Kann, the other on the Slav.  For white, I rely mostly on John Bartholomew’s d4 repertoire, which is available for free on chessable.

Endgames

I own two endgame books: 100 Endgames You Must Know, and Endgame Strategy.  Regarding the former book, in his introduction (or maybe it’s the first chapter) the author directs the reader to the most important endgames contained in the book.  My recommendation for beginners would be to focus on those endgames.

Strategy

I am a big fan of Karpov’s Strategic Wins, a two-volume set that was recommended to me by IM John Bartholomew.  I analyze a few of those games each week over a physical board, trying to guess Karpov’s moves.

OTHER USEFUL TIDBITS

I highly recommend watching IM John Bartholomew’s “standard” games available on Youtube.  Aside from self-study and playing games,his channel has been, perhaps, the single most important learning resource that I have come across.  Chess players learn differently.  Some achieve great skill seemingly just by playing blitz and/or bullet games. I am not that way, and learn best when ideas are explained to me verbally.  John Bartholomew’s channel suits my learning style.  His explanations are crystal clear, and he often finds ways to drill in recurring positional and tactical themes.

I believe it’s important to avoid “tilting” as much as possible.  “Tilt” is when you play overly aggressive, typically after a loss or two.  I believe that becoming better at chess requires you to constantly improve your objectivity at the board. 

If you lose your objectivity, like when tilting, you build bad habits.  And bad habits will inhibit your chess improvement.  One way I try to avoid tilting is simply by switching servers (say, from chess.com to Lichess) if I feel like I’ve lost too many rating points.  There’s something about having a “fresh start” (hence, why I’ve kept my Lichess username a secret!) on a new sever that helps chill me out if I’m frustrated about a loss or two.  Hopefully it will help you too.