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How to become a World Champion

During the candidates tournament in London I had dinner with my good friend Alan Minnican and not surprisingly, the conversation circled to chess improvement at some point. Alan was considering lessons, but is very busy with work. I assured him that hiring a good trainer would be worth it, but that the first thing he should do was to spend 20-30 minutes a day solving exercises.

Now, usually when you give someone advice, nothing happens. People generally do not change their habits or their way of approaching things and for this reason rarely have changed results. But of course there are exceptions. Alan turns out to be one of these:

“You can thank Jacob for his chat at the candidates and his recommendation for daily calculation/combination work. I only have two books here: Calculation and his older one Excelling at Combinational Play.” Alan Minnican, 2013 U-2200 ACO World Champion.

Besides just stating that the first advice given in this series of postings has already paid off with tournament success, I want to talk about an issue I have been thinking about recently.

You get what you pay for

Although this old adage certainly is not true regarding everything, it does seem to be true when it comes to chess training. I see a lot of kids and amateurs using free exercises from Chess.com or Chesstempo.com in their training. The attraction of having a rating for your solving and to have a system that chooses the right exercises for you is of course high. Unfortunately the quality of the exercises is generally low. So, in order to satisfy a very primal need for instant gratification (the rating part) and follow the basic business model we use (money in good, money out bad) people end up spending a lot of time dealing with very low-quality training material. And a chess book is really not that expensive!

But I would like to add that you really want to use a somewhat recent book, which has been checked with computers. Not because people played worse in the past, but because sometimes something flashy was stupid and the exercise in itself was pointless.

A good example of a book I should have stayed away from is ****** ***** ***** by ********* ******. There I found the following exercise:

Diemer – Kotek, Correspondence 1955

A
White played a very flashy looking combination:
1.d6 cxd6 2.Rxe7 Qxe7 3.Nd5 Qe6? 4.Nxf6+ Bxf6 5.Bxf6 Qe3+ 6.Kh1 Black resigned. As a reason, the book gives 6…Kg8 7.Ng5 h5 8.Qxh5 gxh5 9.Bh7#

All very nice, but 7…Qxg5! 8.Bxg5 hxg5 9.Qxg5 Rae8 would offer a bit of resistance, not present after the simple 7.Bd4!, which just wins. As do a lot of other moves.

Even worse is that Black could have played 3…Nxd5! 4.Bxe7 Nxe7 5.Qxe7 Be6±, when he actually has real saving chances. Sure, White is much better, but it is not as easy as it was.

In the starting position White could have won by slow play. Best is 1.Ne5 with the idea 2.Ne4. There is just no defence.

One Solution only?

Mark Dvoretsky wrote an interesting article on Chesscafe recently, debating exercises in general and what sort of quality we should look for. I would recommend that you read it and then make up your own mind. I personally do not have a problem with two solutions; only I dislike it when they are not indicated. A position where everything wins (as above) makes no sense. But at times a less intuitive secondary solution might work as well.

What I do not like is if additional solutions exist, but are not mentioned by the author.

The following example is from the recent Chess Evolution publication 501 Greatest Puzzles of 2012 by Csaba Balogh. In general it is a decent exercise book that I have been enjoying going through. But there are a few things about it I have disliked at times. The first issue was when the wrong solution is given to a puzzle – here I talk about entirely wrong, as in moves from a different game. Where was the proofreader?

The second relates to this puzzle:

Fedorchuk – Markidis, Isthmia 2012

B
White wins

The moment I had it on the board, I felt certain about what the solution should be. But somehow I got stuck and started looking at a different pattern. In the end I acted entirely unfocused and looked at the solutions. Do as I say, not as I do – which includes: don’t do training while watching over your small kids

1.Bxg6! Obviously the right move. It only takes a second for someone like me to see that 1…hxg6 2.Qg4 Bxh6 3.Qxg6+ Bg7 4.Nh5 is 1–0. But what about 1…Bxh6. There I got a bit stuck. I wanted 2.Qh5 Re7 3.Qxh6 hxg6 to work, but did not spot 4.Nh5!+–, though this is not really that hard to see. I also looked at 2.Bxe8 Qxe8, without immediately understanding that 3.Nh5 Kh8 4.Nf6 Qf7 5.Rh3 is just winning.

So, stuck and unfocused as I was, I started looking at 1.Nh5!? Bxh6 2.Nf6+ Kg7

C
Here the right way to attack is to break down the defence of the light squares with 3.Rg3 Rg8 4.Qh5! and something painful is about to happen on g6. I was however attracted to another idea:

3.Rh3 with the intention 3…Rf8? 4.Qd2! g5 5.Qxg5+! and Black is mated.

But certainly, Black should not be so compliant. I was wondering what if he tried: 3…Nc6! 4.Qg4 Rh8

D
Having no match practice and watching the kids; I decided to look in the solutions and was a bit disappointed (actually, the solutions often end where I am not sure of how to win, with the comment +–. This is unsatisfactory). Obviously the book mentions nothing about this position, where White wins with 5.f4, but also with the direct 5.Qh4 Bd2, because of:

E
White wins

Here 6.Qg3 Ne7 is not entirely over, but White wins with 6.Bxg6!! with the idea 6…hxg6 7.Ne8+!! and Black is mated. Other tries such as 6…h6 7.Be8! make no odds. For example 7…Nxe5 8.Nh5+ winning the queen.

So, we have a secondary solution that absolutely wins. Actually, if you leave the computer running for long enough, it actually choses 1.Nh5 as the “better” winning move. I don’t think it is from an instructive point of view, but both moves win and 1.Bxg6 is simpler.

I am not out to pick a fight with Chess Evolution or Balogh. The book’s quality is well above many other books on the market and my criticisms here should not be taken as a general presentation of how the book is. As almost always, the chess is a big part of what I write and this position is just very interesting! I also find it interesting that I stopped thinking in easily winning positions (2.Bxe8). Maybe it says something about how we think a bit as well as just my own failings?

Returning to Mark’s article, I want to point to his sense of taste:

“In conclusion, I would like to point out that a good support for independent training can be a book of problems in which the exercises are sorted not by tactical method, as is usually done, but by the skills for conducting the battle that are being trained. My book Remember Your Opponent, published in Russian and German, was designed according to this principle – and I hope it will come out in an English edition. I can also mention Jacob Aagaard’s book Grandmaster Preparation: Calculation, and for players with a relatively low rating, Artur Yusupov’s series of books.”

Obviously extra sales of our books are extra income for me, but this is not the point of this article. I can live without the extra £100 or whatever this article could ever hope to generate, was it entirely cynical. I am more concerned about you, dear reader, not making false economy decisions. Buy a Chess Informant, Chess Evolution, Everyman or Gambit exercise book for all I care. But don’t waste your precious time solving free puzzles that don’t instruct and are of dubious quality.

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  1. Johnny
    June 3rd, 2013 at 19:20 | #1

    Jacob, could you perhaps elaborate on what sort of tactics training you would recommend for U1700 type players? I am slowly working through and enjoy the Yusupov series, but perhaps sites like those you mentioned provide repetition of basic themes. Or do you not feel that repetition of easy problems is as important part of training as many prescribe? (Love the blog btw… makes me wish I was experienced enough to benefit from buying more of your books! Some day!)

  2. Bo2one
    June 3rd, 2013 at 21:45 | #2

    Since my brain has difficulties in waking up to specific “narrow” tasks, and a tendency to flying freely through the abyss of my ignorance for unpredictable amounts of time before it finds its working rhythm, I like to do some mental stretching with some of those pattern oriented free and easy exercises you’re speaking about before I play Chess games on the net:
    by doing this I noticed I significantly reduce the number of times I lose the first game of a playing session.

    Do you have any other method you can recommend for this kind of Chess oriented brain stretching, possibly of the kind you can do without a PC/laptop/tablet/smartphone/…? Maybe you have in mind some reasonably good titles of books or other publications which have patter-oriented easy exercises?

    (BTW, anyone knows some free server where you can go for 30’/30” games without having to wait twice that time just to find an opponent?)

  3. Michael
    June 4th, 2013 at 05:43 | #3

    Great Article…I have spent a lot of time in the past solving free chess problems on various sites. And I never felt like I was learning as much as I could or getting any real practical results. Therefore I will use them for warm ups for blitz sessions and look to higher quality books and problems for real chess improvement. I had my doubts about how useful these free problems were worth…Nice to hear a real trainer give advice ion this area.

    Thanks!

  4. Gilchrist is a Legend
    June 4th, 2013 at 06:25 | #4

    Positional puzzles, or probably more appropriately denominated as exercises, seem to be very useful as well. Solving for mate or winning material with a clear or decisive advantage is good, but solving for a clear positional advantage due to a pawn structure that renders the position of the opponent as technically lost or, at the least, would be a tedious matter for which to try to draw, is just as useful. Winning a bishop or knight through a tactical sequence is definitely useful, but in games there also arise situations in which one must find a manner to achieve the two bishops, causing pawn islands into the opponent of the bishop, rook to the seventh/second rank in endgames, etc. I think in the excerpt to Strategic Play there was an example where White plays Nf5 and then after …exf5, playing exd5 and causes the wrecking of the pawn structure as well as the two bishops advantage. I thought that example was as useful as tactical problems.

  5. Jacob Aagaard
    June 4th, 2013 at 12:48 | #5

    @Johnny
    The Yusupov books is definitely the starting point. Then Chess Tactics from Scratch and Tactimania are good collections; but there are others out there. The first 200 in the Balogh book would work quite well as well.

    Breaking through to 2000 is no effort for some and hard work for others. But after this the training material becomes better. u2000 the Yusupov vol 1-2 of each series is really the best there is.

  6. Ray
    June 4th, 2013 at 15:39 | #6

    @Jacob Aagaard
    I also liked the Quality Chess Pyzzle book a lot!

    • Jacob Aagaard
      June 4th, 2013 at 16:41 | #7

      It is a great book, but maybe a bit hard for u1700s. But I did structure the book so that all chapters get increasingly difficult. If you feel you have hit a brick wall; go to the next chapter!

  7. Niall Doran
    June 4th, 2013 at 17:08 | #8

    Been reading the blog for a while and enjoy it, but this is my first post.

    I’m very surprised to find I’ve been wasting my time on Chesstempo. I assumed that doing tactical problems would automatically improve my tactical vision, but if I’m being honest I would have to say that for the number of hours I’ve put in over the years, I haven’t got that much out of it.

    I have a question for you Jacob. You give the example of low-quality exercises in reasonably complex positions, which I understand. However, for simpler positions, say for example mate-in-two problems or fairly straight-forward win-a-piece tactics, can these also be of low quality?

    • Jacob Aagaard
      June 4th, 2013 at 21:27 | #9

      Thank you for your question and I appreciate your kind words. Let me clarify my argument (remembering that the chess is a huge part of the article; it usually is).

      I think I did not say wasting your time, but rather that the time could be more effectively spent. I do believe that some exercises are far more instructive than others. I find that the exercises at times have silly solutions there and so do other people I know, who use them. If you are investing 2-3 hours a week, as I suggest as a good starting point (and a logical minimum). Let us say that there are 501 exercises in the book you choose to use (Balogh’s being the one I am using at this moment for myself) or even 3001 (ECO of Combinations 4) and you pay €20-30 for it. If the exercises take you 5-10 minutes average (as I invest – my tactics are rotten), you find that 501 exercises lasts 40+ hours. At less than €1 per hour, I can get something with a value of 60-80% in instructional value (on a randomly imagined scale), compared to 40-60% with these free servers. The problem with the position I gave in my posting from Balogh will be common with those you get for free. They have not been through the same selection process and not been looked at, by a highly qualified person (unless they have been copied from a high quality source, which you would hope do not happen systematically, as it would be illegal and immoral).

      Is your self-training important enough to pay €0.75 per hour for? Mine is, but it is up to each person to make this choice.

  8. Ray
    June 4th, 2013 at 17:31 | #10

    @Jacob Aagaard
    Indeed, that was also my experience. I dropped out in the final chapter on brain crushers. Maybe something to pick up again later, after I have finished some other books :-).

  9. Patrick
    June 4th, 2013 at 18:28 | #11

    LOL Jacob – So you advertise that you structured the book so that it gets increasingly difficult, and then you follow up with suggesting going to the next chapter if you hit a brick wall? If you hit a brick wall in one chapter, what do you think you’ll hit in the next chapter of a book that progressively increases in difficulty? 🙂

  10. Remco G
    June 4th, 2013 at 19:32 | #12

    @Jacob: do you know the Chess Steps method? (Stappenmethode). Lots of exercises, mostly tactics, and unlike Yusupov’s books, the lowest level in the series is actually suitable for a very young beginner. People who aren’t ready for Yusupov’s 1 books yet could use those workbooks first.

    I never understood why they aren’t more famous in the non-Dutch chess scene, perhaps if some English language publisher could create a really quality version of those manuals and workbooks…

  11. Jacob Aagaard
    June 4th, 2013 at 20:33 | #13

    @Patrick
    Every chapter starts off easy and becomes more difficult. Remember they are themed.

  12. Jacob Aagaard
    June 4th, 2013 at 20:36 | #14

    @Remco G
    There is an English version and I have used it a bit with my daughter, but I actually was not ss impressed as I expected to be. Still I have nothing bad to say either – nor would John allow me to say it, if I had :-).

  13. June 5th, 2013 at 14:02 | #15

    Dear Jacob,
    I do not wish to hijack the theme of the blog (btw, I agree with the thrust of your blog and perhaps this has some connection with the concept of “deliberate practice (or not!)) but I just came across a book just published called “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined” by Scott Barry Kaufman. He also engaged in a Q&A with a blogger (http://bigthink.com/insights-of-genius/redefining-intelligence-qa-with-scott-barry-kaufman) and I thought you might be interested to have a read. I would also appreciate your thoughts (no, I have not read the book, just the Q&A). Kaufman’s definition of talent looks remarkably similar to Kasparov’s definition of talent of hard work, does it not? This paragraph describes Kasparov and other top players, don’t you agree:
    “But I was really curious: what is talent? How is it intertwined with deliberate practice? I define talent in the book as a passion or proclivity to master the rules of a domain. I think that’s the best we can do in defining talent when you actually look at what it really is. But that is an explanatory variable, so when you put that into the picture you can sort of see it this way: the more talent someone has – the more passion or proclivity someone has for mastering the particular rules of a domain – you see the less it looks like they are deliberately practicing. [……]
    Engagement and ability are absolutely inseparable. This is something we have not come to terms with in any theory of intelligence. We leave motivation and engagement out of the picture. We leave it out of the gifted education programs and we leave it out of intelligence research. Some intelligence researchers think that they don’t play a role in intelligence, and I think that’s wrong.

    The intertwined nature of nature and nurture suggests that our genes drive us to engage in the world and view certain stimuli as exciting and interesting; they also make us ignore other information. I talk a lot in the book about implicit learning. I think that’s a wholly unrecognized area of research. Our genes are driving us subtly and indirectly to consume certain information and learn about the world – genes are mechanisms of experience, they are learning mechanisms. A lot of these people who look like prodigies or gifted kids, then, aren’t born with all this knowledge; what they were born with is how I define talent: a passion or proclivity to master the rules of a domain.”

  14. Jacob Aagaard
    June 5th, 2013 at 14:06 | #16

    @weng siow
    I think this is just evidently correct. The reason it is not to be found in science is because they find it hard to measure!?

  15. Stigma
    June 6th, 2013 at 02:45 | #17

    There are some advantages to computer programs and websites too, but this is not the place to go into that. I agree most of them are not as well planned and computer-checked as the best exercise books by Aagaard, Yusupov, Nunn, Shaw…

    About these 20 minutes a day: How does the difference between pattern training and calculation training enter into it? I have found a way of working where I treat a set of problems as easy/moderate puzzles that I try to solve quickly, thus getting to see lots of patterns per hour. But whenever I get to a problem that really stumps me, I write down the number, move on, and come back to it later. Then I will treat it as a serious calculation exercise: Set it up on a physical board, give myself 20 minutes on the clock, write down my solution and, if I still fail, try to understand what kind of weakness that reveals in my game.

    Once a difficult position has been solved or finally given up, it can then be treated as a regular puzzle on the next run through the same book (if one believes in repetition).

    Of course, some books are designed for deep calculation training (Grandmaster Secrets: Calculation, Excelling at Chess Calculation, Dvoretsky’s Secrets of Chess Tactics, Volokitin’s Perfect Your Chess) while others are classical puzzle books. But which positions are mere “puzzles” and which are hard calculation exercises always depends on the reader’s level and individual strengths and weaknesses, even within a book the author intended as “all puzzles” or “all tough calculation”.

  16. Jacob Aagaard
    June 6th, 2013 at 08:18 | #18

    @Stigma
    This is a good way to work; especially as it clearly fits your temper.

  17. Betablinx
    June 7th, 2013 at 15:03 | #19

    @Jacob could you please try and get Gawain Jones to write a GM Repertoire book on the Dragon for Quality Chess? It would be a dream come true for me.

    • Jacob Aagaard
      June 7th, 2013 at 15:15 | #20

      He is too busy playing tournaments.

  18. LE BRUIT QUI COURT
    June 7th, 2013 at 18:26 | #21

    Jacob,

    I sincerely do hope that topics like this, which is practically oriented and aimed at real improvement, will actually be covered in GM Preparation – Thinking inside the box.

    Many authors sell fog and “flashy” panacea for aspiring chess player. Unfortunately only a year ago I was finally blessed by right judgement regarding chess books and authors. Not long time ago I followed hypnotically every sucker writer and wasted a couple of thousands euros for a trash books.

    And my improvement was at the beginning, despite of 300 chess books which I had. Now I have only 67 top-notch ones, only 🙂

    Then in despair I followed strict rule “Multum, non multa”, or in English: “Much, not many”. The message of proverb is “much,” instead of “many things,” multa. The point is difference between “depth, not breadth,” the idea being that it is better to focus in on something in a thorough way, rather than spreading yourself thin with many things.

    I’m using for training ONLY the works of Aagaard Jacob, Dvoretsky Mark and Jussupow Artur. Why? Because their books have clear explanations and guidance, followed by numerous exercises. And there does not exist any other method of improvement.

    Hopefully you will cover a real training overview in your upcoming book. If not don’t write it. We don’t need another pamphlet.

  19. LE BRUIT QUI COURT
    June 9th, 2013 at 13:06 | #22

    @Jacob Aagaard
    So what do you think about it?

  20. Peterm
    June 9th, 2013 at 16:44 | #23

    @LE BRUIT QUI COURT
    Everytime Jacob surprises with high quality. And with superb new ideas about training. Maybe it is better not to tell him what to write? He must not go down to ower level…..

  21. Jacob Aagaard
    June 10th, 2013 at 09:40 | #24

    @LE BRUIT QUI COURT
    I find the end a bit unpleasant, which I guess is unintentional.

    Thinking Inside the Box is a very important book to me and I want to pour all my knowledge into it. I am afraid it will be too big, but this is a common problem here and we are used to dealing with it.

  22. Ray
    June 10th, 2013 at 12:37 | #25

    @Jacob Aagaard
    I’m very much looking forward to this book!

  23. Indra Polak
    June 12th, 2013 at 01:22 | #26

    Hi Mr. Aagaard,

    I want to tell you I am enjoying myself and learning a lot from your books lately. And maybe its starting to pay off already since i defeated a IM today in a clock simul. Nice game it was! Inspired by your attacking manual I played the following game:

    [White “de Jager, Jaap”]
    [Black “Polak, Indra”]
    [Result “0-1”]

    1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. g3 g6 4. Bg2 Bg7 5. d3 d6 6. Be3 e6 7. Qd2 Rb8 8. Nf3 e5
    9. O-O Nd4 10. Ne1 Ne7 11. Nd1 O-O 12. c3 Ndc6 13. Bh6 Be6 14. Bxg7 Kxg7 15.
    Ne3 d5 16. exd5 Nxd5 17. N1c2 Nxe3 18. Nxe3 Qd7 19. b3 Rbd8 20. Rad1 f5 21. Qe2 b5
    22. f4 b4 23. Bxc6 Qxc6 24. fxe5 bxc3 25. Qc2 Rd4 26. Qxc3 f4 27. Nc2 Bh3 28. Qd2 Rxd3 29. Qe2 fxg3 0-1

    Jaap outrates me by some 300 elo points at the moment so I was very pleased. Keep up the good work!

  24. Jacob Aagaard
    June 13th, 2013 at 10:29 | #27

    @Indra Polak
    Well played; lovely game and a nice conclusion.

  25. LE BRUIT QUI COURT
    June 13th, 2013 at 11:05 | #28

    Jacob Aagaard :
    @LE BRUIT QUI COURT
    I find the end a bit unpleasant, which I guess is unintentional.
    Thinking Inside the Box is a very important book to me and I want to pour all my knowledge into it. I am afraid it will be too big, but this is a common problem here and we are used to dealing with it.

    My comment about your future release is benevolent! I subtly warned you not to write about philosophy like Hendriks & Co, cause I don’t like such stuff. I praise your latest works, since Practical Chess Defence and Attacking Manuals, very highly! With other books which you wrote for other company I not happy and I don’t know why.

    Please note following questions which to my mind should be answered in Thinking inside the box:

    1. Optimal weekly and daily training schedule
    2. How to identify myself as a player: which type am I?
    3. Which openings to play and why? How they correspond with my chess style?
    4. How many books to use and which software for outplaying learned positions?

    These are the questions which I would like to have answered right now! 🙂

  26. June 15th, 2013 at 11:27 | #29
  27. June 17th, 2013 at 02:24 | #30

    I think there is a huge gap in the market for puzzle books where top GMs took a long time over the decision and found the best solution but the final evaluation is only a slight improvement in the position. ie training of all sorts of judgement including evaluation itself rather than trying to find a “win”

  28. June 17th, 2013 at 02:32 | #31

    @LE BRUIT QUI COURT
    I thought Hendriks’ book one of the very best I’ve read in years because it changed my mind about chess. He is in my mind saying “study good chess” and that you have a chess reasoning brain which does all the work. Verbal explanations can point you to the right areas to look at but in the end the useful work is done without words. That’s long term planning as well as short term calculation. That’s what I took out of the book and something I got that nowhere else. I also think the idea of chess visualisation of patterns might be a misnomer too.

  29. Joseph Knecht
    July 16th, 2013 at 04:23 | #32

    A great site for chess tactics training is http://chessity.com/. Every tactic is authored by IM Cor van Wijgerden, and the quality and diversity of tactics is unlike other sites I’ve used, such as chess.com or chesstempo.

    Many of the problems deal with defensive tasks and other less-commonly treated themes, and many of them have very tempting wrong answers that look just like a standard pattern but fail for some reason. I don’t know why it’s not more commonly known.

  1. June 8th, 2013 at 09:28 | #1

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