Chess Progress: making the big leap

by Albert Silver
5/21/2016 – Contrary to some fields where controlled steady progress is the norm, chess is dominated more often than not by timely bursts forward preceded by periods of seeming stagnation. It can be tricky knowing when it is one or the other. Here is the tale of just such a leap forward, as well as tips and recommendations to help you make your big leap.

When reading the new ratings lists, our curiosity naturally leads us to the names we know, names on the rise, and those on the fall. We cheer forth grandmasters as they work their way slowly but steadily up the Elo ladder and for those of us still working on moving up we hope to emulate them. Gained 15 Elo in two months, brilliant! This is a fair assessment if you are a grandmaster, or a long-time player with a well-established rating, but for players lower down with pools, no, lakes of untapped potential, the progression is much less likely to follow such a steady course.

When lifting weights in a gym, personal evolution is indeed about as linear and gradual a process as can be. There will never be a time where you were straining to do 10kg curls one week, but a couple of weeks later find yourself suddenly able to heave 30kg. At least such moments will not take place in the waking world.  

Chess progress for beginners, or at the very least players who have never truly challenged their limits, is more about spurts and bursts than slow and steady. The size and depth of this burst is what varies the most. Sometimes that burst of results is a blip on the radar, a magic performance we are unable to sustain, and sometimes it is simply our new reality. The latter is what we all wish for. How do we achieve that leap forward, and how do we know we aren't simply 'stuck'?

I personally experienced this situation when I was starting in chess, and therefore sympathize more than you know with all those trying to improve. Before discussing some of the lessons and pitfalls, allow me to share the tale of my personal big leap.

My big leap

I got into chess quite late by all standards, knowing how some of the pieces moved, but not all the chess rules, until I was 17. When I started, I was clueless on how to best progress, and soon began purchasing chess books from the Librairie St. Germain, a specialized chess store in Paris.

The two books that really had an impact were Richard Reti's Masters of the Chessboard, a guided tour of the world champions and the evolution of chess all while teaching chess to a novice. It did wonders to fuel my love and fascination of the game, as well as instill concepts I could seek to develop. Still, Yaacov Neishtadt's primer on tactics (and it could have been any author really) was the real door-opener and my chess finally began to take off. My first rating was 1580, pretty much in line with that of several of my chess buddies.

A great classic, this work by Richard Reti manages to do it all: sharing the
evolution of chess through the insights of the world champions, all while
imparting the basic concepts of combinations, development, and more.

A year later, I was rated 1810 in France, but a number of my friends had already made even greater gains, and I began to feel like the tail-ender of the pack. I asked a close friend, FM François Vareille, for advice on what to study, and he suggested a trilogy on strategy by Ludek Pachman, having been key to his personal leap forward.

By now, I had finally formulated a genuine longterm goal: achieve a FIDE rating. It bears explaining that while nowadays that is a 1400 Elo threshold, back then 2200 Elo was the minimum to achieve one, and was the first holy grail of a budding player. A national rating of 2000 in France meant you were a well-respected first category player, but the first claim to fame that garnered silent nods of respect, and possibly admiration, was a FIDE rating. We had a few at my club, and they were clearly gods of chess. A casual glance at a position would yield an immediate and unquestioned, "White is better" or "Black is better". I wanted to reach that level of chess omniscience.

We can't all be super prodigies like Samuel Reshevsky abov, age 8, giving a simul

I read through the two first books by Pachman, covering topics such as piece development, placement (volume one), pawn structures of all kinds (volume two), and truly my game began to take on a different shape. I took down tons of notes at every page, but my study of tactics and calculation had slowed down to almost a complete stop. A year later, while two of my friends had by now broken past that ineffable barrier, my rating had now trickled (to my mind) to 1880.

Was I really so much less talented? Was I going to have to recalibrate my expectations and content myself with being a 'first category player'? The truth is that I was still integrating all the new strategic concepts I had been studying, almost to the detriment of the tactical weapons I had already developed in my arsenal. It wasn't that I had only earned 70 Elo in positional knowledge, it was that I was trying to apply it all to the exclusion of everything else, leading to a situation of three steps forward, but two steps back.  This is normal and common, and the brain often takes time, going from one extreme to the other, to balance it all out.

Needless to say, I did not see it this way, and was feeling quite disheartened, perhaps slightly betrayed by my new love, who was no longer reciprocating my passion, but now seemed to be singing a tune of 'let's just be friends'.

That pretty much sums up how I felt

At this point in time, I was now packing my bags to go to the US to college, could not bring my growing collection of chess books, but did not want to be idle. I therefore decided that if my time for chess threatened to be limited, I would need to be exceptionally efficient. In fact, if I was going to be without the rich chess options of Paris, I might consider myself lucky if I just staved off stagnation.

After perusing for days the endless rows of chess books of my favorite chess bookstore (there were now two in Paris), I found one Russian trainer whose methodology of tactics seemed to hit all the right chords of logic. His approach made perfect sense (the titles of the books did not) and what was more: actively suggested not trying to cram it all down in one sitting. 2-3 study sessions a week at most please.

The trilogy of books with the extremely well-conceived system did wonders.
There were issues with some of the diagrams, it needs to be noted, but they
did not detract from the meat of the books.

My time in Madison, Wisconsin, revealed I had not misread the situation. At all. The only chess club at the time met for exactly one-and-a-half hours once a week late Tuesday nights. This was in contrast to my club in Paris that ran all day and well into the night every single day! And this was hardly exceptional there.

The times of a chess club "open every day" such as my previous one, Chess XV, were to end

I stuck to my guns, and steadily worked my way through the system developed by Livshitz. His idea was almost exactly like weight-lifting systems in gyms: slowly but surely increasing the difficulty, always measured in both the material and training. Even the topics were carefully selected per maximum usefulness: what would bring the most benefit at a determined rating.

The dearth of chess there was saddening, so I also decided to give something back and teamed up with a local player to give free classes to kids every Sunday morning at a popular coffeehouse bookstore, a concept still gaining popularity at the time.

The Wisonsin newspaper, The Capital Times, ran a special on the chess initiative.
Yes, I sported very long hair and a goatee at the time.... No comment!

As to competition, sadly: zilch. This was by no means ideal, but it was the situation at the time. This lasted for about three years before I moved to Rio de Janeiro.

It was 1994, and I was now living in a big city once more, and I was starved for some chess competition. After a few months of nothing, I saw an ad in the paper announcing the 1st Majestic Tournament of the Naval Club reserved for players rated at least 2000. I was not concerned and lied my way into it, explaining my rating was 2005 in France. This was before the Internet, and the organizers just scratched their heads and put me in. In my mind, I felt that I should be able to handle 2000, and if I underperformed to 1900+, no big deal. The important thing was that I was finally going to play a tournament! Oh yes!

I knew I had improved some, so my expectation wasn't wild fantasy. The most recent testing material I had been doing, supposedly geared for players rated 2000-2200 with time limits of 50-60 minutes, I had been solving in 15 with no errors. What that translated to in real life I had no idea, but balanced with extreme tournament rust, it still had to work in my favor, no?

The first round started and I was paired with some player called Ricardo da Silva Teixeira. No rating was given. Whatever. He himself was late, and after arriving some 15 minutes after the clocks had started, just sat down, shook my hand briefly and jotted down his name and mine on his scoresheet, while I peered carefully to see what rating he put. He left the rest all blank, and just made his move. No matter. Focus on the game, enjoy it.

Early on I sacrificed my exchange to accelerate play on the kingside where I began pushing forward, and as my attack picked up speed, I felt that the game was now mine to lose as I was sure the tactics were going to work in my favor. I glanced up and noticed a large gathering around us. Startled, I realized many of them were players still playing their games. I looked back at the board. Ok, the attack was in full bloom, and I could see the winning tactics by now, but this was hardly a game by Tal, so what was the big fuss? When he resigned, I received several enthusiastic congratulations, though I had trouble understanding what was up as my Portuguese was extremely limited still.

"You beat Ricardo Teixeira!"
"Yeah, so what? Who is Ricardo Teixeira?"
"He is a state champion and rated 2305 FIDE!"

I gaped.  No, that was absurd. Ricardo graciously complimented my play, saying that he had expected an easy first-round opponent, and had never anticipated my level of play. I protested I was really only 1880. He smirked, 'not for long'.

FM Ricardo Teixeira - Albert Silver

[Event "Naval CC Magistral 1st"] [Site "Rio de Janeiro"] [Date "1994.06.??"] [Round "1"] [White "Teixeira, Ricardo da Silva"] [Black "Silver, Albert Winston"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A26"] [WhiteElo "2305"] [PlyCount "74"] [EventDate "1994.06.??"] [EventType "swiss"] [EventRounds "9"] [EventCountry "BRA"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2005.11.24"] 1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 g6 3. g3 Bg7 4. Bg2 O-O 5. d3 d6 6. Nf3 e5 7. O-O Nc6 8. Rb1 a5 {It needs to be said that at the time, my opening theory was quite close to non-existent, and was mostly in the domain of 'principled play'.} 9. a3 Nh5 10. b4 axb4 11. axb4 f5 12. Nd5 f4 13. b5 Ne7 14. Nd2 g5 {An attacking move, but I was ready to give up the exchange for my rook on a8 if it bought me time to get a lead in the race.} 15. b6 c6 16. Nc7 Ra5 17. Ne4 g4 18. Bd2 Ra2 19. Qb3 Rxd2 {Taking here is obvious and the only point of Ra2.} 20. Nxd2 Nf5 21. Rfc1 $2 {This is a blunder and completely underestimates the impending threats on his king. Clearly I was not being taken seriously.} ({Years later, revisiting this game, the engines pointed out a missed resource that neither I, nor Ricardo ever saw.} 21. Bxc6 $5 bxc6 22. b7 Bxb7 23. Qxb7 {It is still unclear, unless you are playing correspondence chess, but perhaps this was better than the game's continuation.} fxg3 24. hxg3 Nhxg3 25. fxg3 Qg5 $1 {And I get back the knight, since White must parry more serious threats like mate.}) 21... Bh6 22. Rb2 fxg3 23. hxg3 {[#]} Nhxg3 $1 24. fxg3 Be3+ 25. Kf1 Nd4+ 26. Ke1 Nxb3 27. Rxb3 Rf2 {Both of use were quite short on time, in spite of the 40 moves in two hours time control} 28. Be4 Bxd2+ 29. Kxd2 Qg5+ 30. Ke1 Qe3 31. Rc2 Qxg3 32. Kd2 Rf1 33. Ne8 Qe1+ 34. Ke3 Qf2+ 35. Kd2 Qe1+ 36. Ke3 g3 37. Nxd6 Bg4 0-1

This gave me a huge boost of confidence, and suffice it to say, I probably would not have played quite so uninhibited had I known the true strength of my adversary. Ignorance is bliss. As such I went on to face other 2200+ players full of self-belief. I played another tournament a month later, and achieved a FIDE rating of 2230, a leap of 350 Elo, which I confirmed over the following years.

That breakthrough tournament held in 1994, took place in the Clube de Engenharia as the
Clube Naval was undergoing renovations. A few days ago, the Clube de Engenharia re-opened
their chess department, celebrating it with a simul by former world no.3, Brazilian GM Mecking.
Your author, Albert Silver is on his right, and FM Ricardo Teixeira is on the left. As it turned out
Ricardo became one of my oldest and dearest friends. (Photo by Fernando Alvim)

I do not doubt many players have their own tales of success such as this, but also believe there are some universal lessons that can be taken from it and applied to others still wondering whether their goals are achievable in spite of any failures they may have experienced on the way.

Goals

Set up a goal that is neither too modest, nor too lofty. You don't want 'baby steps' nor do you want a 'giant leap for mankind'. Goals can also be treacherous since the finishing line can sometimes be the hardest to cross, so always aim a bit beyond. Want to reach 1800? Make your goal 2000, where 1800 is just a stepping stone.

Progress

Chess progress is rarely linear so be prepared to see long periods of 'stagnation' even if you are studying regularly and feel your level should have increased. Our brains can take time to organize it all, and the leap will probably be when it begins to click inside.

Method

Make sure you have a method that will increase your arsenal and preferably is measurable. How and what you study is no less important than how much or how long, maybe even more so. In an ideal world one would want a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of the game, but in our hectic hustle and bustle, infinite time is not even a luxury the young have. Aim for tools that will yield the most efficient results, and gradually add the rest in order of importance. What are those tools if you are rated 2000 or less?

The absolute number one: tactics, tactics, tactics. You will want a grounding in all aspects, with an understanding of positional basics as well as endgame, but tactics will be your biggest savior and weapon overall in your earliest stages.

I have a few comments on studying tactics though. I am a firm believer in solving it yourself. I have recently heard of schools of thought, even from strong players, claiming that it is ok to see the solution without trying too hard since it will add to the pattern recognition. I'm sure it must sound reasonable under some perspectives, but personally I think that is utter nonsense. Don't worry about spending 10-20 minutes or whatnot on a position (presuming it is not completely out of your reach) if needed. True you won't have that time in a real world game, but so what? You are studying, right? The idea is to train your brain until it is able to find them, and like all things that start hard at first, with time it will get easier and quicker. If you are truly stuck, try the old Russian idea: test every legal position! If even that fails, as a rule, I will instead move to the next, solve a few others, and try to refresh my mind before giving it a second go. Looking at the solution, which I will do if all else fails, is a last resort choice.

Ratings

Ratings are always one of those complicated things, since on the one hand they give you a way to measure your progress but on the other hand can take away your focus from what you are doing to reach your goals. Be patient and remember that like it or not, progress is really going to be measured in the long term, not an event or two. Above all, never forget that ratings don't win games, good moves do.

When you see a top player such as Hikaru Nakamura state that he is not too worried about his placement in an event, but is more focused on just trying to play his best chess, it is not just to look good on camera. He knows that if he can forget the rest and just enjoys the moment and plays his best, good things will happen.

Recommendations from the ChessBase Shop

Beginner to Intermediate Tactics

With so many choices, it is hard to know
which to recommend, but you can never
go wrong with Daniel King, hence this
suggestion for his Power Play 14 on tactics.
Top GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov brings his
own course on tactics here, covering ideas
as well as his own method in The Path to
Tactical Strength.

Advanced Tactics

The Magic of Chess Tactics, which in 2002
was originally published as book in the
USA, has been considerably improved and
expanded. It is also quite challenging.
The sequel, The Magic of Chess Tactics 2,
was no less challenging, with hundreds of
new positions and quizes to test. Not aimed
at beginners, it is a fun DVD for the student.

Also, do not forget the excellent Tactics Trainer web app in ChessBase Account, which provides nearly
unlimited (over 50 thousand positions) training and that adapts to your ability.

Positional play / Strategy

If you are still wetting your feet in strategy,
and want a friendly yet thorough look, then
First Steps in Chess Strategy is a good start.
Veteran trainer and grandmaster, Adrian
Mikhalchishin produced a five-DVD series
called Strategy University. This is vol. 1

Endgame

You really cannot find anything better
than the multi-volume series on the
endgame by GM Karsten Mueller. This
is volume one covering Basic Knowledge.
If you want it all and want it in one single
product, then the timeless Endgame Manual
by the Russian trainer Mark Dvoretsky is your
choice. Just be warned: it has no videos.

Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications.
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slasheru slasheru 5/21/2016 10:24
Inspirational article!
Lachesis Lachesis 5/21/2016 12:01
I agree! An inspirational article
KrushonIrina KrushonIrina 5/21/2016 05:28
Best ChessBase article in a long time.

More like this, please.

How about a whole series of Road to Mastery articles from some of today's top players?
imdvb_8793 imdvb_8793 5/22/2016 02:15
Great stuff!
Lavanda Lavanda 5/22/2016 10:33
Nice article!
Bentzen Bentzen 5/22/2016 04:28
An inspirering story! Thanks!
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