More improvement tips

5/6/2004 – "Is there any single piece of chess software that will improve my game all by itself?" It's a provocative question and one that's frequently asked. In this week's ChessBase Workshop, Steve Lopez offers his answer to it -- an answer that you might find equally provocative...

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More improvement tips

by Steve Lopez

Here's an interesting question I saw recently on an Interrant chess message board: "What's the one piece of software that will turn me into a strong chessplayer?"

I've seen (and answered) that interesting question countless times over the past ten years. Here's an interesting answer: no single piece of software is guaranteed to turn you into a strong chessplayer.

That sounds weird coming from a guy who's made all or part of his living in the chess software business for nearly twelve years, but it's true. There's no one piece of software that will do it all. And there's a whole pile of reasons for this, the same reasons that apply to other training tools besides software. There's no single book that will turn you into a master. There's no single teacher who will turn you into a master. And there's no software program that will do it either.

If you've been playing chess for more than five minutes, you already know that there's a lot to this game: openings, endgames, tactics, strategy, technique, creativity, memory, imagination. There's no single source to teach you all of these things. And there's certainly no "magic bullet", no easy road to success -- otherwise we'd all be sporting 2200+ ratings.

Over a decade ago (before I ever got involved in the software biz) I had a friend named Will down at the local chess club. Back then Will was about the same strength as I was (which is to say not very good) but we played at lot of games together because we were pretty evenly matched. Will told me that his goal was to earn the Master title. He worked pretty hard at it, too; he studied, played over famous games of the past, worked on his tactics, and played chess every chance he got. In short, he was doing all the right things. But a funny thing happened -- about a year after we started playing together, Will gave up chess completely. Why'd he quit? Because he did what a lot of chessplayers do -- he took a good hard look at himself and his abilities and realized that he wasn't going to make it to Master level.

It happens to most of us. You wake up one day and realize that the odds are against you. Over 90% of the world's players are untitled, just your average club players. But few of us go to the extreme that Will did. Most keep on playing and enjoying the game, even though we know that we'll never "make it" as great chessplayers.

That's actually a pretty healthy attitude. We know that we won't make Master, but we keep on working at our games and try to get better, even if that improvement comes in small increments (if at all). And along the way, we find out that there's no "magic bullet", no one book or program that will give us a quick and easy path to success. We pick up what we can wherever we can. For most of us, a $15 chess book that gives us one really great, useful tip or piece of knowledge amounts to $15 well spent.

That's why software, particularly chessplaying programs, gives you a lot of bang for your buck. You can play chess anytime you want with a sparring partner who will give you tips during a game and afterwards analyze the game, showing you where you went wrong. No, it won't lay out a complete course of instruction the way a good human teacher will, but it can certainly point you in the right direction, provided that you're willing to do some of the grunt work yourself.

That's what a lot of chess improvement amounts to: grunt work. You play games, pick them apart to try to discover where you're weak or lacking, do some studying to try to correct the deficiency, and then dive back in and play some more. It's hard, it's time consuming, sometimes it's frustrating, but it's always worthwhile. As Jesse James said last night on Monster Garage, "It's not about winning -- it's about trying". I'm not a huge fan of Jesse's, but I'll be the first one to admit that his words were damned profound.

Even though the trying is a lot of work, there are ways to make it less of an effort. The Fritz "family" of playing programs (Fritz, Shredder, Hiarcs, Junior, Chess Tiger, Nimzo) contain a lot of features to help you improve your game. None of them are as easy as having the program smack you upside the head and say, "NO, dummy! You're screwing up your pawn structure in all of your games!" But a lot of features will help you in your efforts to spot your deficiencies.

In this (and the next) ChessBase Workshop, we're going to look at some of these features. None of this will constitute a major, in-depth step-by-step examination. All of these features have been discussed at length in past articles. These Workshops will be more in the nature of a reminder, calling to your attention features that you may have overlooked or ones that you don't use often enough. Even if you're a longtime, hardcore power user of ChessBase's various chessplaying programs, at least give this brief list a quick once-over: there's likely a useful feature or two mentioned here that you've forgotten.

It takes a wise man to admit that he doesn't know something. Really wise men admit that they don't know anything. That's an important point. If you think you already know it all, chances are that you don't -- and you've already shut yourself off from the process of learning more. Some of these features might seem really basic to you at first glance -- but, then again, you might be surprised by how useful they really are.

1) The Coach. You might not realize it, but the Coach is your best friend. Some players look on the Coach function as some form of "cheating". Um, maybe it's an academic question, but since you're not playing against a human player, how can you "cheat"? The Coach serves a very useful purpose. Many of us got our first chess "lessons" from a stronger player; in many cases, we were children learning from an adult. What did our "teachers" frequently do? They gave us takebacks and plenty of them.

That's the Coach. When you do something stupid (maybe that's too harsh a term. "Ill-advised" is better), the Coach pops up and warns you that you'd better think twice about the move you just made. You can always reject the advice (and probably regret it later when the program whacks you a good one). You can even have the Coach show you why the move you just made is stinking up the joint (with either a subtle or "broad" [i.e. specific] hint).

I realize that some chessplayers are prideful individuals and don't like the thought of getting "help". But look -- this is a piece of software we're talking about here. It's not going to run down to the chess club and tell all your rivals that you've been asking for advice and getting takebacks. Nobody knows except you and Fritz -- and, trust me, Fritz doesn't care.

Use the Coach, at least once in a while, even if you're a strong club player. Your goal in playing games against Fritz isn't to rack up an amazing win/loss percentage against the program. Your goal is to learn something and become a better player, so don't worry that you're "ruining" games by accepting takebacks. If you use the Coach frequently, you're going to see that you're making a lot of the same mistakes again and again. The first step to correcting mistakes is to spot them -- and the Coach doesn't miss much.

(Long-memoried, astute readers will remember that I once cautioned against allowing yourself too many takebacks in games against a computer. You're right, I did say that. And I still believe it, too. So why isn't this contradictory? Because I'm giving you food for thought here. Not all chessplayers are the same and not all of us learn the same way. I use a variety of methods in my personal chess training. I typically don't allow myself takebacks, but I also get into jags where I'll play a batch of games against Fritz in which I have the Coach running. This lets me spot my deficiencies two different ways: "on the fly" in some games [the ones in which I'm using the Coach], and retroactively in other games [where I look at the game afterwards and spot where the terminal buttkicking occurred]. Both methods work. Pick one you like and use it, or else use both methods alternately. Anything that works for you is a good thing.)

2) The "Show threat" function. I wrote extensively about this in an article a few years ago; I'll just summarize here. A "threat" in chess is what a player would do if he could make two moves in a row. It's as simple as that. "Show threat" is equally simple. Your playing a game against Fritz and the program has just made a move. "Now why did Fritz do that?" you wonder. Click on "Show threat" and you'll more often than not get your answer. "Show threat" will show you what Fritz would do if it could move again, without you making a move in the interim.

Why is this important? Let's say that Fritz has just made a move that sets up a mate in one. If you make a pawn move on the opposite side of the board, you're toast. But if you make a Knight move that blocks Fritz' open line of attack, you've just successfully defended yourself. "Show threat" will graphically show you the Queen move that mates you -- which will drive home the point that the pawn move you were considering is extraordinarily doofy and should be avoided. Is this a piece of knowledge that will profoundly affect your chess play for all time to come? As an individual move/position, probably not. But the point of "Show threat" is both subtle and profound: it's to illustrate that all good chess moves have a point -- and that it's a good idea to always try to discern the point of your opponent's previous move. It's pretty elementary, but even club players sometimes forget to ask themselves, "Now why did he do that?"

3) The Hint function. OK, Fritz has made a move. You've asked yourself "Why did Fritz do that?" You may even have use the "Show threat" function to get an answer to that question. But what do you do next?

C'mon, admit it (you'll feel better if you do): you sometimes get stuck for a reply to your opponent's move. Maybe you often get stuck for a good answer. It happens to all of us. It happens to Garry K. Why do you think he's sometimes squirming in his seat, holding his head in his hands, when he's playing Junior on TV? What? You think he's trying to win an Emmy for his acting? Junior doesn't care if he squirms, and the rest of us are looking at our analysis sets at home, so we're not even noticing. Naw, Garry gets stuck sometimes, the same as you and I.

So you're at home, playing your computer. The kids are in bed, your significant other/main squeeze is watching Home and Garden TV or American Chopper. Nobody's watching you. So use the "Hint" feature when you get stuck. The program doesn't care, nobody will see, and I promise not to tell. I will promise you this: if you're thinking about the hints the program is offering you, you'll find yourself using the Hint feature less and less as time goes on. And, in case you don't catch the point, that spells i-m-p-r-o-v-e-m-e-n-t, ladies and gents.

OK, we've covered the tip of the iceberg. We'll chip away a bit deeper at it next week. Until then, have fun!


© 2004, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.


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