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Interview with GM Max Illingworth
GM Max Illingworth is the 2019 Australian Chess Champion (as well as the champ in 2014). We discuss a few areas including his own chess development, his coaching philosophy, as well as training tips.

Below the video, I summarize some major points in bulletpoints.

GM Interview | Max Illingworth | Australian Chess Champion - YouTube

Chess Development
  • Supportive parents were essential in Max's development.
  • He built a good foundation using GM Yasser Seirawan's Play Winning Chess book series (which I have recommended as well).
  • Coaches have played a key role in helping Max avoid misconceptions and lead him on the right path with his chess knowledge and training.
Overcoming Plateaus and Adversity
  • He hit a plateau as he had other competing priorities when he went to high school, and he learned to overcome his adversity partly through maturing with age as well as realizing that adversity is a part of growth.
  • Part of him breaking through the 1800 level he attributes to studying Andy Soltis' How to Choose a Chess Move.
  • "Sometimes you have to get a little bit worse before you improve." Part of improvement is grinding through adversity.
  • His coaches helped him overcome the chess obstacles, but were not as experienced in coaching the psychological side of chess and performance (which has inspired Max to study these areas in his own coaching career).
Chess Coaching
  • Max is currently focusing his time on his coaching and helping people.
  • Learning the "skill" of silence and really listening to his students is one of Max's secrets to his coaching success.
  • Coaching is an individualized process for Max. He tries to look at each student's individual needs and provide them with the solution - which may include resource recommendations, thinking techniques, or other training material.
  • Lessons over the internet has many advantages including being able to transmit material (e.g. pgn files, etc.) easily.
  • Max seems to be very specific in his recommendations to his students that comes from working very hard to understand their needs. No cookie cutter solutions!
  • Understanding his students' thought process and helping them to avoid mistakes in their thinking is one of his goals in coaching. He has been inspired in this by GM Jacob Aagaard.
  • One of the most common oversights is not seeing alternatives on move 2 - move 1 for many amateurs!
  • He is currently incorporating concepts from self-improvement and sports psychology - this is what sparked our first conversation with each other.
Chess Training 
  • Self-awareness is key to much chess improvement.
  • Max recommends solving problems by theme and then repeating them. (This is very similar to "The Woodpecker Method" that I've discussed before).
  • Books are more about giving knowledge as opposed to giving skills. As players, we need to learn how to apply the knowledge.
  • We also discuss the importance of having the "right" books to study and train, as the wrong books may teach the wrong lessons for a particular student. 
  • Blitz chess can be helpful...just don't overdo it! In particular, it gives you a lot of experience in your opening repertoire as well as endgames.
  • Training with a physical chess board is not necessary, and Max stresses that neglecting the efficiency and interactivity of using phone apps and computer software for training can be a mistake as well.
  • Getting feedback and trying to learn something from every game is a great way to improve.
  • Chess engine analysis can be helpful, but it is important to be actively engaged and asking questions when using it if you want it to help you improve.
Keep an Eye Out
Max has a few interesting projects coming up and I'll be sure to update you and perhaps have Max for another interview of update in the future!
Contacting Max
If you'd like to contact Max:
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Six Tips to Improve Your Tactics
Recently, I broke the 2300 mark on Chess.com's Tactics Trainer. Although building up your tactics skill is a road of consistent effort and learning, I was able to attribute my recent performance on the tactics server to a few specific changes in the way I train.

In this article, I will summarize six of those changes in the form of specific tips. For those of you who enjoy watching videos, I created a video on this topic

Control Your Environment
I found that I was doing my tactics training in places where I could get easily distracted. For example, on my phone while the kids were getting ready for school or during dinner with the family. One of the major things I changed was to follow a simple rule: No tactics when someone else is in the room. It reduced my distractions, and improve my relationships with my family members.

Improve Your Mindset
As I started to improve at tactics, I found myself focusing too much on my tactics rating. I know the title of this article is focuses on my rating, but it was my focus on the process of training and improvement that produced the results, not the other way around.

Besides focusing on the process more, I also tried to monitor the way I spoke to myself. Instead of getting upset when I got a problem wrong, I would tell myself, "I am learning and growing from this mistake" or something similar to try to put myself in a better frame of mind. 

Build (or Rebuild) Your Foundation
An important factor in improving my tactics was having a command of various tactical themes. To this end, I supplemented my training on Chess.com with several chess tactics e-books on Chessable.com: 1001 Chess Exercises for Beginners and The Woodpecker Method. As of this writing, I've solved about 1000 problems (and reviewed them multiple times with Chessable) covering a comprehensive variety of tactical motifs in these books. 

This foundation served me well as I was able to spot patterns fairly quickly. Since Chess.com's rating is partly derived from the speed in which you solve the problems, this fluency with the tactical patterns paid dividends in terms of higher ratings gains from correct solutions.

Learn from Your Mistakes
Another important habit that I developed over the last year is looking over all of the problems particularly the ones I got wrong to make sure I understood the solution. In addition to understanding the chess aspects of the problems, I also analyzed my thoughts and variations I had when solving the problems. This self-awareness helped me to avoid future mistakes.

On Chess.com, I downloaded the problems and studied them on SCID. If I found a useful pattern, I saved it into Chessable. This has helped me to identify similar patterns in future problems.

Balance Quantity and Quality
I read about people who do 50+ tactical problems a day. However, I wonder how they do these? Are they studying their mistakes? Are they treating these problems like a game-like situation? I think players need to balance quantity and quality when it comes to tactics training.
I probably do about 10-15 new tactics problems daily. I do review tactics problems using Chessable, so this probably accounts for another 10-20 problems daily. Additionally, among these problems, I probably do additional analysis on a few of the problems - e.g. if I get a problem wrong - to make sure I understand them. This takes about 20-30 minutes a day. I think this thoughtful training is just as effective as someone who plows through a ton of problems over a full hour.

Of course, everyone's different, but reflect and observe your own habits and see if you are balancing quality with quantity.

Create Your Identity
How do you see yourself as a tactician? Thinking of yourself as "the best tactician in the world" may be unrealistic and is probably more detrimental than helpful. However, if you see yourself as a capable tactician or an improving tactician, that identity can help influence your behaviors. If you identify yourself as a good tactician, you'll be more thoughtful in your training. You'll be more confident both in your training and your games when it comes to tactics. 

This may sound a little farfetched, but I started tell myself that I was a good tactician. I started to take pride in seeing all of the relevant variations in a problem. I started to see more combinations and sound sacrifices in games. Try it out!

Keeping Perspective
Of course, your tactics rating is separate than your overall chess strength and rating. However, for many amateur players, a deficiency in tactics is a big hindrance. I've met many players who "outplayed" me only to drop a piece and then had to resign - and I've been that player as well. If you look at the tactics ratings of title players like International Masters, you'll see they all have incredibly high tactics ratings. Indeed, not all players with high tactics ratings are strong players overall...but nearly all strong players have high tactics ratings.

Your Turn
I invite you to try a few of these tips in your future training. Send me a tweet at @YourBryanCastro and let me know what you thought about this article.
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Hi there!

I've created a very short poll and discussion on your biggest chess struggle. This will help me in planning out content for 2019.

The poll allows for one vote, but your responses in the comments section are very helpful to me as well.

Please take a minute and answer my poll. Click here to go to the poll.

Thank you and best wishes for the rest of 2018 and into 2019!

Best regards,

p.s. I really appreciate you reading and viewing my content here at Better Chess Training. I hope it is helpful on your chess journey. Connect with me on Twitter at @YourBryanCastro and keep in touch!

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When it comes to improving your tactics, there are many methods available to you including chess tactics servers like Chessity and Chess Tempo, which I've talked about previously. There are also many books in print form. I think there is a third method that combines the online accessibility of chess tactics servers with the chess instruction of a good book - interactive ebooks on Chessable. In this article, I'm going to share my thoughts on one of the newest offerings on Chessable, The Woodpecker Method by GM's Axel Smith and Hans Tikkanen.

I actually created several videos to highlight this ebook so I will give some thoughts for those of you who would prefer to read and encourage you to check those videos out.

The Woodpecker Method is named after the repetitive nature of training the collection of tactics problems. Those of you familiar with Michael de la Maza's "7 Circles" may note its similarities. This book provides both the collection of problems (which de la Maza doesn't in his book Rapid Chess Improvement) as well as suggesting the repetitive solving of the set of problems. 

Within the Chessable platform, the reader may also engage in using the software's inherent spaced repetition system to review the problems - which I highly recommend. With this system, you do not wait until you have solved all of the problems before seeing them again. Instead, you will see a problem a few hours after you have solved it initially, and if you successfully solve the problem again, you will see it perhaps a day later. This time period increases as you successfully recall and solve the problems. It is like having a coach help you review the problems at the most appropriate time - before you have fully forgotten it but not too soon as to be cumbersome.

Here are some of the details on the sets of problems (from the ebook's description):
  • 223 x Easy Exercises (2.66 avg depth)
  • 255 x Intermediate Exercises (3.66 avg depth)
  • 255 x Intermediate Exercises II (3.59 avg depth)
  • 254 x Intermediate Exercises III (3.54 avg depth)
  • 145 x Advanced Exercises (5.55 avg depth)
One interesting tidbit about the problems is that one of the participants is a World Champion (or former World Champion). Sometimes they are even on the losing end of a combination. Because of this, some of the positions are fairly well known. I admit I had a thrill whenever I recognized the position, often followed by frustration when I failed to remember the right continuation!

I give a similar overview of the problems in the video below:

The Woodpecker Method | E-book Review | Chessable (Part 1) - YouTube

When it comes to the problems themselves, there is a comprehensive mix of tactical themes many of you will be used to, including:

  • Fork
  • Discovered Attack
  • Pin
  • Promotion tactics
  • Drawing tactics
  • Zugzwang
There were also some interesting concepts that may not be as familiar in name (although you may have seen the concept in practice):
  • Lifeline: Capturing a piece and then "rescuing" the capturing piece from recapture by using it in another combination.
  • The Magnet: I have often used the term decoy to describe this this tactic, where you capture or sacrifice a piece in order to draw another piece (often the king) onto a specific square, file, or diagonal.
The chapters are categorized by difficulty and not by theme. Within each chapter, the problems also seem to be arranged chronologically by World Champion - e.g. Starting with Steinitz and Lasker and finishing up with Carlsen.

Overall, I found there to be a good variety of problem types. For a sampling of some of the problems, check out the video below, where I present a few problems as sort of a tactics quiz!

Woodpecker Review Part 2 | Tactics Quiz | Chessable - YouTube

Overall, I really enjoy this ebook and think that The Woodpecker Method can really help you improve your tactics. Here are the things I enjoyed about the ebook:
  • The selection of problems: The set was comprehensive across different tactical methods and motifs.
  • The analysis: The problems had good depth of analysis when the answer was not totally obvious. The authors also included short text explanations for many of the problems. The authors also note what you should have seen in solving the problem, which I thought was very useful in developing my thought process around tactics.
  • The historical factor: I enjoyed that they used the World Champions and their games for the source of all the problems.
  • The Chessable Format: Having this ebook on Chessable is a big plus, and these types of problems are perfect for the Chessable review system.
There are just a couple minor caveats you should be aware of:
  • Problem difficulty: Although most players can tackle the easy problems and a few of the intermediate problems, the more difficult problems are quite aptly named. I think this ebook is best for players at least USCF 1200 or higher, although I wouldn't discourage lower rated players to start tackling the first two or three chapters.
  • Lack of text explanation: As mentioned, the analysis is quite detailed especially for the more difficult problems, but for beginning players, the lack of text explanation might not be as helpful.
Overall, I highly recommend this ebook for intermediate players and higher who want to improve their tactical skills. 

If you enjoy watching videos, here is my final video in this series, where I summarize my recommendations (including an example from one of my games demonstrating my increased tactical vision):

The Woodpecker Method Review Part 3 | Chessable | Tactics - YouTube

I hope you found this review helpful. As always, my goal is to help you improve your chess. Sound tactics is a key foundation for any chess improvement efforts, and The Woodpecker Method is sure to help you with the tactical aspect of your game!

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My confidence comes from the daily grind - training my butt off day in and day out.
-Hope Solo, Olympic and professional soccer player

In Part 1 of this 2-part series, we discussed the first two of four principles of effective training. The four principles are:

  • Appropriateness of training - e.g. skill level, complexity, modality, etc.
  • Having clear objectives - knowing what you want to improve or the goal of the training task.
  • Having feedback loops to regulate and adjust the training activities.
  • Systematically reviewing the learned material or skills to ensure retention.
So this week, we will be going into more detail about feedback loops and systematic review.

Feedback Loops
I am writing after having recently watched the 2017 Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons started off very well and had a 28-3 lead early in the 3rd quarter. Many people thought that the New England Patriots were done for. However, as my Buffalo Bills have found out many times over the years, Tom Brady and the Patriots weren't finished until the final whistle blows. 

Sure enough, the Patriots, led by a rejuvenated Tom Brady (who didn't play will in the first half of the game) came back to tie it and eventually win it in overtime. Although it was a history making event - the biggest comeback in a Super Bowl as well as the first overtime in a Super Bowl - I wasn't surprised by the outcome.

One thing that I read about the Patriots years ago was that head coach Bill Belichick and his team were excellent at making halftime adjustments. I'd seen this pattern firsthand when the Patriots played the Bills: New England starts slow, goes into half time slightly behind, then comes back to crush the Bills in the second half.

Well, the point of this story is that feedback loops are like coach Belichick's halftime adjustments. They help us adjust our path when we go astray. 

We have a lot of feedback loops in our life that regulate our behavior. For example, when we perform our profession properly and do what we are employed to do, we received positive feedback in terms of a paycheck and perhaps some praise from either clients, customers, or managers. If we choose not to eat for a very long time, our body will soon give us negative feedback in terms of hunger.

How can we apply this to our chess training? Here are a few ideas:
  • We can analyze our games - see my article Seven Questions to Ask Yourself After Each Chess Game for a process to do this - to find out mistakes and as I discuss in that article to also find our good moves! By doing this, we can reinforce the good aspects of our game (positive or reinforcing feedback) and we can also try to reduce our mistakes or the type of thinking that led to that mistake (negative or balancing feedback). 
  • We can post our games on public forums for others to see and comment on. This has the effect of both motivating us to play our best during our games, but also provides the feedback mechanism of their comments, praise, and criticism to help us adjust our play.
  • Tactics servers such as Chessity and Chess Tempo give you immediate feedback when you get a problem right or wrong. I like Chessity because it gives you a pleasant "ding" of a bell when you get a problem correct and a slightly harsh buzzer when you get the problem incorrect. 
  • Schedule it into your routine to get feedback or review your games. My article on chess workflows explains how to create these useful routines.
  • Journal about your insights you gain after your training sessions and games. Schedule times periodically - e.g. weekly or monthly - to review these insights and see if you should make any additions or changes to your training.
Without feedback, it's hard to know what we need to do to improve. An analogy I found very useful to understand this is that it's like "bowling with a curtain in front of the pins."

For more information about feedback loops, check out this article by James Clear.

Systematic Review
We get appropriate study material. We are clear about what we want to learn or improve. We have set up some useful feedback loops. All of this means nothing if we don't remember.

The fact is that we as humans have memories that fail us at times (especially as we age - which I'm noticing a lot more these last couple years). Or perhaps the more accurate way to look at it is that our access to our memories fails us at times.

Since our memories are not perfect, we need to review what we have learned regularly in order to remember and apply it when it matters most - during our games.

Now if you've taken care of the first three steps, you're ahead of the game. The previous principles we've discussed will ensure that the knowledge you've learned is in its best state for future recall. Before I discuss some ideas on how you can review systematically, here are a few more tips about learning and memory:

  • Strive for understanding before memorization. For examples, it will be much harder to remember complex opening variations if you do not understand the underlying tactical and strategic reasons behind the moves.
  • Start from simple to complex. This is one reason why studying the endgame is so effective in helping you improve your overall game. By understanding the power and nuances of each piece in the endgame, your handling of these pieces in the middlegame and opening will improve naturally.
  • Build upon your existing knowledge. Our memories work like the internet in a way...the more links that a piece of knowledge to other knowledge in our memories, the better we understand it and the more likely we are to remember it. For example, studying positions from your opening repertoire or from your own games are easier to remember than other positions.
The general idea behind systematic review is to refresh your memory and to strengthen these memories so that they can be recalled during your games. An effective method of this is called spaced repetition. Basically, you attempt to recall knowledge over time. I've discussed this concept in previous articles, and I think it's a great way to combat forgetting.

How can you apply spaced repetition and systematic review to your training? Here are a few ideas I use in my training:
  • You can try certain software that incorporate spaced repetition. For openings, you can check out Chessable or Chess Position Trainer. (You can read my Chessable review). Although it's not chess-specific, I also enjoy using Supermemo which first introduced me to the concept of spaced repetition. 
Chess Position Trainer schedules your review

  • You can schedule a weekly review of specific positions you want to remember. I got this idea from Chess Master at Any Age by Rolf Wetzell (who creates sets of flashcards). On a weekly basis, I review tactical problems I got wrong on Chess Tempo and Chessity.
I review the "red" problems on a weekly basis (Chess Tempo screenshot)

  • Consider setting up "theme" days for reviewing certain parts of your game. For example, you might schedule days for reviewing your opening repertoire from either the white side or the black side. 
  • When I'm first learning a more complex endgame, I will schedule a weekly session to practice it against the computer. As I feel I understand it, I will increase the time in between practice sessions.
The idea is to have a system or routine to review material you have learned. Some material you may know so well that you don't need to set up a way to review it. For example, I do not need to review the "square" of a pawn or the opposition in my endgames. However, specific king and pawn endgames with king path nuances I still review on a regular basis.

If you want to learn more about memory and space repetition learning, I encourage you to read some very interesting articles on the Supermemo website

If you apply the principles that you learned in these last couple articles, I think you'll be very pleased with the results. These are principles that I've learned studying how we learn and remember things as well as from experience both in chess and other endeavors, including martial arts and other sports. They've served me well and I hope they will help you improve and enjoy chess more effectively and efficiently.

Your Turn
I hope you enjoyed the article. If you found it helpful, please share it with others.

Which of these principles do you plan on applying to your training first?

Which of these principles do you already apply to your training?

Do you want to learn more about any of these principles?
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Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.
--Cal Newport
Our society is increasingly becoming one of short attention spans and distractions. Much of this has to do with the internet and the prevalence of distractions such as social media, smartphones, instant messaging, and other "tools" which can be used productively, but often are used to direct our focus and keep our brains "entertained" instead of actually helping us to be productive.

In chess - or at least in my own training - I find we have similar distractions. Between reading the tweets of chess grandmasters to playing a few dozen blitz or bullet games on the internet, I often find myself distracted from doing the very things that can actually help me improve in chess.

After a long day at work and then spending time with my wife and children, it is very tempting to watch the video recap of recent chess tournament commentary or some blitz commentary on Youtube instead of analyzing one of my recent losses.

Do you find this in your own life?

On the long flight to and from the Philippines - with a total of over 30 hours in the airplane - I had the opportunity to read an insightful book by Cal Newport called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. In this book, Newport - a computer science professor at Georgetown University among other things - discussed the issues underlying the statements I made above.

The premise of his book is that in a world where people have less ability to focus and produce value, those who are able to should be able to thrive, as there will be less competition. The book then lays out a few rules and guidelines on how to go about developing this ability.

There were several applications to chess, which is what we will discuss in this article.

What is Deep Work

Cal Newport defines Deep Work as the following:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Mr. Newport is mainly referring to knowledge workers who make their living producing, calculating, or doing this with information that can't easily be done by a computer. He gives examples such as producing computer code, writing books and articles, or creating art such as music or painting. I think studying and training in chess are similar. 

By including "hard to replicate" in the definition, he is referring to activities that require training or education. For example, teaching someone to check answers on a multiple choice test does not require much training or skill. However, interpreting and editing mathematical proofs or long form written prose require much training, skill, and experience to do well. 

Here are some chess examples of what I would consider Deep Chess Work:
  • Playing Solitaire Chess for an hour or two then following up with an hour of analyzing your results.
  • Doing standard tactics on Chess Tempo for an hour or 90 minutes without distraction.
  • Playing long time control games against the appropriate competition.
  • Analyzing without the use of computer chess engine assistance - particularly with complicated positions.
The keys to these activities is actively stretching one's limits as well as doing it for an extended period of time. This type of work is arduous when you put your mind into it, and many casual players often avoid this type of work. However, those who do these things will benefit greatly.

Specifically, I have found the following benefits from increasing the depth of my chess study and training.

  • Ability to assess and analyze positions deeper and more accurately. I think part of this is the patience developed by practicing it during my tactics and analysis sessions.
  • Increased tactical vigilance - in my calculations, I find that I am able to see threats several moves further than before.
  • Improved mental endurance during long time control games. Again, I think having longer study sessions - e.g. 90 minutes to two hours - have helped me to focus for longer.

The Shallows

Mr. Newport defines Shallow Work as:
Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Now, he does go into detail in the book that not all "shallow" work is bad, and in fact some is necessary in many jobs. For example, if you are a customer service representative, your work is critical for the success of your company, but it isn't necessarily cognitively demanding and can often be done with Facebook or Twitter in the background. This isn't meant to be demeaning, but instead as an example to differentiate between deep and shallow work.

In chess, I think we also have many activities that can be defined as shallow work. Some of it, we have to do and indeed I think some of the activities can be used in conjunction with the type of deep work activities I mentioned above. 

Here are some examples of "productive" shallow chess activities:
  • Looking up your openings in opening manuals.
  • Repeating your opening lines for memorization (within moderation)
  • Checking your analysis with chess engines.
  • Post-mortem discussion of your games (which can become deep work depending on how intense your analysis is with your opponent/partners)
  • Studying chess books (which again can become deep work depending on focus and attention)
  • Organizing your chess databases.
All of the activities in the above list cannot be categorized as Deep Work because they don't push your cognitive limits and do not require your unique abilities to complete. However, these activities are beneficial as they help to increase your knowledge and are often needed to help consolidate and organize the work that was done in the Deep Chess Work listed above.

Here are some examples of "non-productive" shallow chess work:
  • Excessive Blitz and Bullet games
  • Watching excessive chess videos
  • Playing online chess while flipping over to Youtube, Facebook, or Netflix (I've been guilty of all three)
  • "Casual" chess engine analysis (where no effort is made to understand the position on your own)
Regarding the last list, all of these activities can have some value, but they don't necessarily stretch the limits of your capabilities and are often done for entertainment and distraction rather than for improvement. 

Chess is meant to be enjoyed, so I'm not telling you to avoid all the "shallows" totally. However, only you can determine whether or not your time spent in the shallows might be better allocated - at least partially - towards Deep Chess Work.

Practical Suggestions

I'm like many of you. I have a full time career, children, and other responsibilities. So being able to piece together a couple hours here and there to train and study is often difficult. However, I believe that increasing the amount of deep chess work in your training will yield great dividends over time. 

Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
  • Track the amount of deep work you currently do to get a baseline. Check out my article on measuring your chess for some guidelines on doing this.
  • Schedule your deep chess work. For example, three days a week I get up an hour early to get some training in before my children get up.
  • Reduce your shallow work such as blitz games and videos. Replace those sessions with deeper work.
  • Work with training partners who will keep you accountable. For example, I have a partner whom I send my annotated games to. He doesn't have to study my games - but he knows to expect them and it adds some positive pressure to analyze my games.
  • Reduce other distractions such as social media while you're doing chess work on the computer. When I first tried doing this, I found it difficult not to click open Facebook while doing some analysis.
  • Commit to analyzing withoutchess engine assistance for a set time (and use a timer). For example, analyze your own game for an hour before checking your variations with the engine.
  • Occasionally have a long training or study session lasting say two hours. This can include long time control games if you do not play them very often.


Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. This book is very interesting and a fairly quick read. I highly recommend it.

Interview with Cal Newport on the Psychology Podcast. An interesting discussion that compares Deep Work to concepts like deliberate practice and flow.


Let's face it, chess is getting faster and our attention spans are getting shorter. The volume of chess videos (which can be beneficial) and blitz and bullet chess (which can also have some value) have overshadowed deep work. This is exacerbated (at least for adult chess players) by responsibilities of work and family which prevent us both logistically and in terms of energy to pursue hard deep chess work. 

However, if we can create a few habits and seek out opportunities to increase the moments of deep chess work, I believe our skill and knowledge will benefit greatly.

Go deep and play better chess!

Your Turn

What type of deep chess activities do you enjoy? Share it in the comments!

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Talent is Overrated

I have over the years run into chess players who talk about how they don't have enough "talent" to reach certain skill levels. Although this may be true, as I am not disregarding that we all may have natural limitations to our chess ability, I think that it can be something of an excuse as well.

When we think of our limits instead of our potential, we don't work as hard as we might. If you thought that the best you could achieve is an A Class (1800-2000) rating, then would you put the extra effort trying to break through to the Expert level?

The truth is that even master strength coaches do not always have a true grasp of what an individual player's potential may be. I think chess is too complicated of a game with too many individual factors to be able to measure the potential of a player (in the long run).

With all of this being said, I think you should strive as high as your aspirations (and resources) allow you to strive. To help you along the way, here is a list of things you can do to improve your chess that have absolutely nothing to do with your chess "talent."

Play Tough Competition

As I wrote in Who You Should Play to Improve Your Chess? the level of competition you face is very important to improving. You want on average to face players who are slightly stronger than you. 

It is good to occasionally play opponents who are weaker than you, so you can exploit their mistakes and demonstrate your winning technique. However, more often it is essential to play people who will exploit your mistakes and expose your weaknesses so you can go about improving them.

This is the reason many chess coaches suggest playing a rating class above your rating so you will face tough competition. 

This is also easy to do online such as on ICC or Chess.com. You can just set your rating window to only face opponents with ratings between -25 and +200 (for example). Play stronger players, and soon you will get stronger.

Focus Your Attention

In over-the-board tournaments, how often do you see players away from their board during their opponent's turn? Now, I'm not saying the occasional stroll around the tournament hall to catch a breather or see what the top boards are playing is a bad thing. However, all too often, I think players underutilize their time.

I remember once during a tournament my opponent itching to get out of his seat to take a stroll but I kept playing my move before he could. I had to be careful, because I almost starting moving faster just to frustrate his efforts to leave his seat.

The same is true for online play. How often do you click away from your game to check Facebook or to play a video on Youtube? 

Your time during your opponent's turn can be used to do many things, including:
  • Studying the imbalances of the position from a general point of view.
  • Considering the time control and planning out how much time you should use on your subsequent moves.
  • Reassessing your game plan.
  • Taking a breather to calm your emotions in a tense position.
Learn to increase your attention to the game and use your time more effectively. Here's a few ideas.
  • Increase the "on-task" time of your study sessions. For example, if you study tactics on a chess server like Chess Tempo, increase the times of sessions incrementally.
  • Take up a practice like breath awareness meditation, where you learn to bring your attention back to your breath. One site I use is Headspace.com.
  • Keep physically fit. Better health increases attention.
  • Make sure you are sleeping enough. Fatigue limits your attention.
Keep a Positive Attitude

Sometimes, we get disappointed about our chess results or our progress. Keeping a positive attitude about our play and our potential is essential to keep consistent with our training. Although this advice may seem a little esoteric, it is a technique that professional athletes of all kinds utilize to maximize their performance. 

Being positive is not the same is having an unrealistic fantasy of our chess potential. In fact, having a positive attitude allows you to actually see the reality of your chess situation.

For example, instead of thinking "I stink at chess endings" you might adopt the belief of "I can improve at the endgame which will improve my overall results." The attitude is positive and focused on the action required to solve the problem.

To improve your attitude, I recommend looking up my friend Greg Liberto who works with professional golfers. He has a lot of free information on the topic. I also enjoy the books of sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella. 

Being Consistent

I think one of the reasons I have not progressed as much as I would like in my own chess journey is a lack of consistency. I'm guessing some of you may be in a similar situation.

It is true that work, children, and other responsibilities often predominate our lives. However, I think it is possible to develop a consistent routine with some organization and accountability.

Think of chess improvement this way. For every hour you study or practice chess, you receive 5 units of chess strength. You can study for three hours once every three days, earning 15 units of chess strength. However, let's say you lose a point of chess strength for every day you do not study or train. You can equate this to forgetting or getting "rusty." So if you only train every third day, you gain 15 units of chess strength, but you lose two points on the two days you don't train.

Compare this to doing a single hour every day. You gain 5 points of strength, and you don't lose any points, giving you 15 points of strength increase. Perhaps not an accurate model of how this works, but I think you get the point.

Getting consistent can be as simple as developing the habit of doing a certain amount of training at a certain time every day. James Clear illustrates the importance of consistency in The Difference Between Professionals and Amateurs  and I recommend his writing if you want to improve your habits and life in general.


This list can go on and on, but I think these four will give you a great start. Talent for chess exists I'm sure. However, thinking about your chess potential in anything but a positive light can be an unhealthy thing for many amateur players. 

Instead, I think you should focus on things you have control over, including your attitude and your chess habits. Doing so will do more than worrying about what level of chess you can ultimately achieve.

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Obviously, the highest type of efficiency is that which can utilize existing material to the best advantage. -Jawaharlal Nehru
Chess is a complex game. Getting better at chess can be complex as well (although I've made efforts at trying to simplify it for myself and hopefully, my readers). Besides the actual "nuts and bolts" of chess knowledge - e.g. openings, pawn structures, endgames, tactical motifs, etc., we also have the training methods we use to study these. I know I've shared a few of these here on Better Chess Training as well as on the Chess Improver site. It can all be a bit overwhelming and I apologize for any contribution I may have made to that.

In this article, I want to help you process all of this chess "stuff" that you do to improve and enjoy chess. Today, we're going to discuss how to use workflows to help you automate and systematize your chess training activities.

What is a Workflow

A workflow is a process or series of processes to accomplish a task from beginning to end. You might call it a system or a routine if you wish- the name doesn't really matter for our purposes. 

A workflow should give you the following information:
  • Who should do that task - e.g. unless you're a professional player or have hired a coach, for the most part this will be you.
  • What needs to be done
  • Where the information/output will be stored - e.g. notebook, chess database, etc.
  • When it should be done
Benefits of Workflows

I just wrote earlier about the complexity of chess training and feeling overwhelmed and now I'm telling you to create workflows. Why would you want to consider using them? Here are a few reasons:
  • Workflows keeps things from falling through the cracks. For example, we all know that analyzing and studying our games is beneficial and important. However, I know I have dozens of games that I've played an haven't analyzed. Creating a workflow to handle this will eliminate this problem. 
  • Workflows reduce "decision fatigue." By deciding in advance how you will process aspects of your training, you reduce the stress and strain of having to decide later. In a game where we spend a lot of energy making decisions - oh, and "real life" decisions we have to make as well - reducing decision fatigue seems important.
  • Workflows build confidence. When you have a process in place to handle all of the incoming chess "stuff" in your life - e.g. your games, chess books you read, articles, etc., it feels good. I know when I started instituting a few simple workflows (which I'll describe later), my belief in my own ability to learn and improve at chess increased. 
  • Workflows save time. Because you do not have to "decide" on a moment by moment basis what to do with certain aspects of your chess training, you save that time (and as mentioned above, mental energy). In the long-term, worksflows will help you save time because it will help you learn faster and more effectively.
What Should I Create a Workflow For

Since part of the premise of this article is to help you overcome the complexity of chess improvement, I'll provide a few questions to get you started:
  • Are there specific training methods that you want to try but don't feel you can fit them into your time allotment for chess?
  • Are there repetitive training or study methods that you use - but perhaps not as consistently or systematically as you want to?
  • Do you have a method for deciding which chess articles and sites to review? Would creating a routine help you capture all of the articles for future review?
  • When you play a game, do you have a process for studying the game? Do you fall behind?
The idea is to find an aspect of your training that is inefficient or non-optimal, and find ways to improve them.

Here are some workflows you might want to consider creating (with a couple examples below):
  • Post-mortem game analysis and review.
  • Storing and reviewing interesting positions and games you see in articles and books.
  • Learning and remembering openings.
  • Studying and reviewing tactical problems you got wrong on Chess Tempo or Chessity.
How Do I Create a Workflow

Creating a workflow can be as complicated or as simple as you have time, energy, and skill for. Let's start with a few simple steps and I'll provide resources for those of you who are interested in this topic. For this, I will share my workflow for processing games I play.
  1. Start with your beginning condition or cue. In this case, it is playing a game.
  2. Decide what the next step in the process is. Also determine if there are any conditionals or questions that need to be asked as well as when the step should be completed. In our example, the next step is to enter the games into my "My Games" database. In the case of online games, it is fairly easy to have the moves e-mailed to me or to move the games from one database to the "My Games" database. 
  3. Basically, you continue to do step two, while focusing on asking whether or not there is a choice to make. For example, in this workflow, the next step would normally be to analyze the game. However, I realized that I often don't have time to do the full analysis process I outlined in 4-Steps to Analyzing Your Game for Improvement. So I had to include a step where I determine how much time I can or should spend on a game. These included three separate steps (I'll show you below) depending on what the answer to this question was.
  4. Continue adding steps until the task is complete. For our example, additional steps include the actual analysis of the game and addition of review materials in their appropriate places - such as Chess Position Trainer for review positions and opening variations.
If you're interested in digging further into this topic, you can check out this video and article by PNMSoft for a general overview of what a workflow is. I don't have any affiliation with this company, but found the video very easy to understand. 

Game Analysis Workflow Example

Here is a visual representation of the example we discussed above. Note: I'm not a process engineer or workflow expert, so my uses of the various icons seemed logical to me - I'm not sure if they're technically "proper."
My Game Analysis Workflow

A couple things to note from the above diagram and the process in general.
  • The amount of time I spend on a game is determined by a few factors. First, how much time I have that particular week or so. Second, how instructive the game was - I tend to spend more time on losses than wins. Third, whether the opening was a major one in my repertoire - I tend to spend more time on the most frequent openings rather than offbeat or sidelines I see seldom. Also, I tend to spend more time on tournament games rather than blitz or casual games.
  • I found that putting a deadline on when this has to get done is helpful - hence the step to schedule it on the calendar. I usually give games about a month. After that, I start to lose the emotional connection and thought process I had during the game, which to me, is just as important as the moves played.
  • In terms of the distribution of games that fall into each category, I probably only do the full analysis on about 10-20% of games - usually games that I will publish in a post or that I found particularly instructive. About half of my games I use the process I outline in Seven Questions to Ask Yourself After Each Game. The rest of the games, I do a quick analysis.
  • I haven't systematized the quick analysis yet (although perhaps I can write more about this in a future post). Basically, I look up the opening in my database and perhaps browse a master game or two that I find in the line. I also have the chess engine running to point out any "surprises" that I may have had. Finally, I might comment on a position or two that I found interesting or confusing during the game. I usually set a timer for 20-30 minutes and try to mine for as much gold as possible in that time. By doing things this way, I know I at least gained some insight from the game and can move on without feeling that I neglected something.
  • CPT stands for Chess Position Trainer, which I find very useful for reviewing my openings and specific positions. (I am also a fan of Chessable for studying and learning openings and I wrote a review detailing some of its features).

Practical Advice

We've covered quite a bit in this article and even though my initial intention was to help simplify your life, you may find this whole concept overwhelming in itself. I encourage you to give it a try. Here are a couple final tips that might help you get started.
  • Try to create just one workflow in your chess program. 
  • Try to diligently follow that workflow for 90 days.
  • Measure the impact it has in terms of efficiency, stress, chess improvement.
  • Keep it simple at first and build on core processes.
Finally, remember a workflow is a tool. If you find that it doesn't serve you, then let it go. I don't have workflows for every single activity I do in chess. The ones I use work very well for me and I continually tweak and try to improve them. Sometimes, I just want to play through a Bobby Fischer game or watch a chess video on Youtube. Chess is a game to enjoy after all. When used properly, workflows can help you enjoy chess even more!
Your Turn

I hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, please share it with your chess friends.

What workflows are you going to create?

What workflows in your life do you already have?

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I had the great pleasure of interviewing FM Nate Solon. Admittedly, Nate discovered Better Chess Training first and through several conversations during previous articles, I decided that it was time to invite him for an interview. Mr. Solon generously accepted. 
My questions are in bold.
Learning to Play and Getting to Master Level

Better Chess Training (BCT): Tell me about your chess beginnings. How old were you?

FM Nate Solon
I started playing around fourth grade, so about nine years old. Many people learn chess from their dad, but my dad and I learned at the same time. I remember we had a set where the moves were displayed on the pieces. Initially we were evenly matched, but I surpassed him pretty quickly.

BCT: At what age did you start playing tournament chess?

Checking my rating history, I see my first tournament was in 1995 when I was ten. I started playing in tournaments not too long after I learned how to play.

BCT: On your way to master level, where there any difficult plateaus at certain ratings levels? How did you overcome them?

My rating graph is fairly smooth, with a small dip around 2000. I definitely remember feeling frustrated many times that I wasn’t improving as quickly as I wanted to, but I don’t remember any specific “aha!” moments where I consciously realized something that made a big difference. It was more a continuous grind of playing, and then all of a sudden I would get stronger.

BCT: Did you have any coaches as you improved along the way?

My first coach was the owner of the chess club where I first started playing. He was around 1700 strength. One of my weaknesses early on was playing too cautiously or passively and he encouraged me to play more aggressively. I remember a tournament game in which I defeated him with a wild, sacrificial attack. It was probably totally unsound, but it showed that I had learned the lesson. He was very proud. Looking back, I think that shows what a generous and insightful teacher he was. He was able to help me grow as a player and when I used what he taught me to beat him, he was more happy for me than disappointed about losing.

Later on, I worked with a full-time chess teacher who was around 2400 strength. He was able to help me with more technical parts of my game.

BCT: Did you have any books that made a big impression on you in your climb up the ratings ladder?

I had a puzzle book early on that had a mix of checkmates, tactics, studies, and even things like retrograde puzzles. I was really fascinated by that. As far as strategy, I read the Play Winning Chess series by Yasser Seirawan and Jeremy Silman. There are probably a lot of good books for beginners, but those served me well.

My first teacher gave me the Zurich 1953 book by David Bronstein and I spent a lot of time going over those games. I think good annotated games are probably one of the best things to study, especially early on. Other books I remember include My System - couldn’t really make heads or tails of it - and Fire on Board by Shirov - I was very impressed by the games, but didn’t really understand them. I also remember spending a lot of time on Reassess Your Chess.

Overall, my approach to chess books (and chess in general) was not very organized. I skimmed many more books than I read, but I was always thinking about chess.

Approach to Chess

BCT: Do you have a specific approach or style to your chess?

I think poker has taught me to be pragmatic (I’ve been playing poker for a living for about eight years). I’m a lot more open to the idea that many approaches work and it’s not always necessary to play the “best” move than I used to be when I was just a chess player.

As far as my own style, I tend to have a good feel for the initiative and the energy of the pieces. I’m pretty dangerous if you give me an attack, but I’m weaker when it comes to defending or navigating murky positions.

BCT: What are the similarities and differences between poker and chess?

They have a lot of similarities and a lot of differences. They both have very deep strategy; the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know. You have to study and practice for a long time to get good.

The biggest difference is the level of variance. In chess, it’s rare to lose to a much weaker player, and if you do, you can usually point to the mistake that caused it. In poker, you lose to weaker players all the time. And I mean really weak players, the poker equivalent of someone starting the game with f3, g4 or something. But then you lose. That can be tough to deal with, especially if chess is your frame of reference.
BCT: I've noticed several high level chess players have delved into poker at a professional level...this could be another topic that we discuss in a future conversation!

BCT: Do you have a favorite player and what do you like about that player?

I’ll say two - one to watch and one to imitate.

My favorite player to watch is Tal. His games are completely insane. Most people like to gain some kind of advantage, then consolidate, make things safe, and try to gain another advantage. Tal just leaves everything floating in the air all the time. Even after playing over his games many times, I still can’t understand how he’s doing it. But trying to imitate this style usually doesn’t work out very well!

My favorite player to imitate is Carlsen. Of course, I’ll never be anywhere near as good as he is, but the thing that players of all levels can take from him is his fighting spirit. He never gives up and plays to win in all positions. Grit is such an important factor - it can trump a lot of other aspects of chess. If you want to improve, you really need to fight against that voice that says, “Let’s take it easy, let’s not fight today.”

BCT: What are your favorite games of Carlsen and Tal?

For Carlsen, I came across this game while researching the London System and was really impressed by it. This is like the chess equivalent of Steph Curry crossing someone over: the elegance, the sly sense of humor, always being two steps ahead. The defender keeps thinking he’s about to have things under control, only to realize he’s wildly off balance for the next move. This game gives me a really strong sense of Carlsen’s insight and wit.

[Event "Tata Steel"]
[Site "Wijk aan Zee NED"]
[Date "2016.01.22"]
[EventDate "2016.01.15"]
[Round "6"]
[Result "1-0"]
[White "Magnus Carlsen"]
[Black "Evgeny Tomashevsky"]
[ECO "A46"]
[WhiteElo "2844"]
[BlackElo "2728"]
[PlyCount "59"]

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 e6 3. Bf4 b6 4. e3 Bb7 5. h3 Be7 6. Bd3 O-O
7. O-O c5 8. c3 Nc6 9. Nbd2 d5 10. Qe2 Bd6 11. Rfe1 Ne7
12. Rad1 Ng6 13. Bxg6 hxg6 14. Bxd6 Qxd6 15. Ne5 g5 16. f4
gxf4 17. Rf1 Nd7 18. Qh5 Nf6 19. Qh4 Qd8 20. Rxf4 Ne4 21. Nxe4
Qxh4 22. Rxh4 dxe4 23. dxc5 bxc5 24. Rd7 Rab8 25. b3 a5
26. Rc7 a4 27. bxa4 Ba8 28. a5 Rb7 29. Rxc5 Ra7 30. Nc4 1-0

The following game has that unique Tal thing where everything is hanging in the air, then suddenly coalesces into a winning position in a way that’s really hard to wrap your head around. The crazy thing is that there’s so many Tal games I could have picked. For most people, this would be the best game of their career, but for Tal it’s just a day at the office.

[Event "Tallinn"]
[Site "01"]
[Date "1964.??.??"]
[EventDate "?"]
[Round "?"]
[Result "1-0"]
[White "Mikhail Tal"]
[Black "Anatoly S Lutikov"]
[ECO "C40"]
[WhiteElo "?"]
[BlackElo "?"]
[PlyCount "61"]

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d5 3.exd5 e4 4.Qe2 f5 5.d3 Nf6 6.dxe4 fxe4 7.Nc3
Bb4 8.Qb5+ c6 9.Qxb4 exf3 10.Bg5 cxd5 11.O-O-O Nc6 12.Qa3 Be6
13.Bc4 Qe7 14.Nxd5 Qxa3 15.Nc7+ Ke7 16.Rhe1 Qc5 17.Rxe6+ Kf8
18.Rxf6+ gxf6 19.Ne6+ Ke7 20.Nxc5 fxg5 21.Rd7+ Kf6 22.Rd6+ Ke7
23.Re6+ Kd8 24.Nxb7+ Kc7 25.Bd5 Nb4 26.Bxf3 Rae8 27.Nc5 Nxa2+
28.Kb1 Rxe6 29.Nxe6+ Kd7 30.Nc5+ Kd6 31.Nd3 1-0

BCT: What do you enjoy about chess?

I like that chess is completely absorbing and inexhaustible - the more you learn, the more you realize how much deeper it goes. Compared to poker, I like that in chess you “deserve” the result you get. Having played a lot of different games now, I’ve found most people prefer some luck in their games - they don’t really want to be in control of everything. But for me, poker is too far towards the luck-driven side of the spectrum and I prefer chess.

BCT: What does chess mean to you?

Coming back to chess recently, after not having spent much time on it for years, has made me realize how deep my connection with chess is. I’m still not really sure why I’m so drawn to it and sometimes I wonder what I could have accomplished if I put the same amount of effort into something more traditionally useful, but at this point I just accept that for whatever reason I have a tremendous affinity with chess. Right now I’m focused on improving as a player and teacher.

BCT: Do you have a favorite game (of yours)?

[Event "Import"]
[Site "https://lichess.org/mOTcEa75"]
[Date "2017.05.10"]
[Round "-"]
[White "Nathan Solon"]
[Black "Richard Kenneth Delaune Jr"]
[Result "1-0"]
[WhiteElo "2317"]
[BlackElo "2364"]
[ECO "D44"]
[TimeControl "-"]
[Termination "Normal"]
[Variant "Standard"]
[Opening "Semi-Slav Defense: Botvinnik System, Lilienthal Variation"]
[Annotator "https://lichess.org/@/CheckRaiseMate"]

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.Bg5
{Reading Shirov's game collection probably influenced me to go for the
super sharp Botvinnik Variation.}
5...dxc4 6.e4 b5 7.e5 h6 8.Bh4 g5 9.Nxg5 hxg5 10.Bxg5 Nbd7 11.g3 Qa5 12.
exf6 Ba6 13.a3 O-O-O 14.Bg2 Nc5 15.dxc5
{I think this queen sacrifice might have been a novelty at the time.
Probably not a good one, since grandmasters have chosen 15. 0-0 in
this position, but it seems to me that white's position is easier to
15...Rxd1+ 16.Rxd1 b4 $2
{It's not wise for black to open lines on the queenside, where his
king is. Simply 16...Bxc5 was better.}
17.axb4 Qxb4 18.O-O Qxc5 19.Ne4 Qf5 20.Ra1 Bb7 21.Rxa7 Bc5 22.Rfa1
{The point isn't to defend the rook, which can't be taken anyway
because of Nd6, but to introduce the threats of Ra8 and Ra5. This
forces black to go for a forcing sequence...}
22...Bxf2+ 23.Nxf2 Qxg5 24.Ra8+ Bxa8 25.Rxa8+ Kc7 26.Rxh8 Qxf6 27.Rh4 Qxb2
{The ending is probably winning for white due to his material
advantage, but it's not that easy. I managed to get there in the end.}
28...Qa1+ 29.Bf1 f5 30.Rf4 Kd6 31.h4 Qb1 32.Kg2 c5 33.Bd3 Qb7+ 34.Kh2 Qg7
35.h5 Qh6 36.Be2 Ke7 37.Kg2 Qg5 38.Rh4 Qh6 39.Rf4 Qg5 40.Nd3 c4 41.Rxc4
Qe3 42.Nf4 Kd6 43.Ra4 e5 44.Ra6+ Kc5 45.Re6 Qe4+ 46.Kh2 Kd4 47.h6 Qb7 48.
Nh3 Qb2 49.Ng1 e4 50.h7 Qb8 51.Rh6
{1-0 Black resigns.}

Chess Instruction

BCT: What is your teaching philosophy?

My approach to teaching is constantly evolving. I believe the most important qualification for a good teacher is a sincere commitment to helping each student improve. Therefore, I spend a lot of time thinking about what would be most helpful for each individual.

Recently I have been focused on making my lessons as interactive as possible. I find the student learns the most when they are actively practicing the concepts. For that purpose, I’m developing a database of instructive positions so I can give each student examples and exercises focusing on the areas of their game that are most important for where they are right now.

BCT: Where can people reach you on the internet?

BCT: Any upcoming projects?

I’m working on an app that will make it easy to search a position database by thematic tags and print out a selection of positions in a nice format for study. I just started learning to code so it may be awhile before it’s ready for use by other people.

BCT: Great! We’ll have to do a follow-up once your app is up and running!

I appreciate this conversation and the thoughtfulness in your answers, Nate. Do you have any parting advice for our readers?

For one piece of advice, I would suggest creating records of the work you do on chess. So for openings, have your repertoire stored somewhere, preferably something like chessable or chessply that allows you to drill the lines you've decided are worth memorizing. For your games, create a personal database with chessbase or similar where you enter all your tournament games. If you annotate them, even better. For tactics and any other regular training you do, use a goal tracking app to make sure you're sticking to a routine. 

This helps create a sense of progress and a way to get out of that cycle a lot of people find themselves in where they play a lot of chess but never seem to improve.

Your Turn

We will definitely catching up with Nate Solon again for future discussions.

Do you have any questions for Nate? 

Put them in the comments below and I'll either forward them to him or he'll answer them here!
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Photo by Ryan McGuire. CC0 1.0
It's been a couple years since I wrote my first article on analyzing your games - 4 Steps to Analyzing Your Game for Improvement.

Since writing that article, I've analyzed a few of my games as well as discussed the topic with other players, including some chess coaches and masters.

In today's article, I wanted to give some practical advice for those seeking to improve their chess through analyzing their own games and revisit and refine a few of the points I made in my original article.

If you haven't read the original article, you may want to check it out for more context as I will try not to be too redundant.

In addition to this article, I also created a video series where I played a game online, and then subjected the game to the game analysis process. You can watch the original game with my comments here.

One thing I've observed in myself is that when I'm "self-annotating" my games - the step of the process where I describe my thoughts, analysis, and feelings during the game. - is that sometimes I tend to paint my thoughts more positively then actually happened. Oversights become "misevaluations." Bad moves become "inaccuracies." Blundering material is described as "not getting enough compensation."

It is important when we want to improve to get an accurate assessment of where we are in the development process. Sometimes, this can be embarrassing because we have a certain expectation of ourselves. However, it takes humility and confidence to admit our faults and mistakes. We have to get over this hurdle though if we want to get to the next level.

In the first step of the analysis process, try to capture all of your thoughts. Sometimes, you will forget everything you thought about - that's okay! Even it is only a few moves that you are very clear about - the key is to try to figure out how you think. The fact that you forget what you were thinking of specific moves is insightful in itself!

What are Key Positions?
In the second step of the analysis process, we will try to identify a few key positions for further analysis. I describe in more detail the types of positions you will want to find in the original article, but there are a couple points I've been emphasizing more lately that I'd like to discuss with you.

The first is positions in which your evaluation during the game differed greatly from the actual evaluation of the position. For example, positions that you thought were drawn that were actually won or lost, and so forth. The reason why this is so important is that our ability to evaluate positions is one of the most important skills we can develop.

When we misjudge a chess position, it can be due to a couple of reasons:

  • We lack specific knowledge about certain positions - e.g. We don't realize that a specific endgame structure is drawn, so we push for a win only to throw away the draw.
  • Our emotions cause us to be overly optimistic or overly pessimistic of a position. We can look at the example of Kasparov's game two loss in his 1997 match against Deep Blue, where much analysis has shown that Kasparov may have resigned prematurely (although there is some debate over this).
This is one area that the chess engine can at least give us an approximation of a position's evaluation to compare to our own. I will discuss using chess engines in our game analysis next.

In the video below, I apply the first two steps of the analysis process to my game.

Game Analysis Process Part 2: Steps 1-2 - YouTube

Using Chess Engines in Analysis

I've gone back and forth over using the chess engines in analyzing our games. I've currently settled on the view that chess engines can be very useful if used sparingly and in specific situations. I've written before about the limits of chess engines in helping us improve, but here I'll give a few tips on how you might use them to help you in game analysis.
  • You can run through the game with the chess engine on but only look at the computer's evaluation. Here, you can see where there are big jumps in the evaluation. This tell you where the big mistakes where made. If your opponent made them, you can see if you exploited them. If you are the one with the blunders, you can find out why. Some programs create an evaluation graph and you can see the peaks and valleys of the graph to identify key positions.
  • It's okay to come to your own conclusions, even if the engine disagrees with you. If after comparing your analysis and the engine's analysis, you think your move is better, then accept that. This may seem like odd advice, but the fact is that sometimes the computer engine is wrong...and even when it's not, the type of move it produces may be an exception due to the tactics of the position and may not be generally applicable in other cases. Also, it's important for you to develop your own voice when it comes to chess - although I encourage you to do this in an environment where you have access to good instruction or good books that can guide you.
  • Do not accept chess engine analysis if you do not understand it. Remember that the engine will not be with you in your tournament games. If a suggestion by the computer is too complex for your understanding or goes against what you believe are good positional principles, then let it go. You can always revisit the position at a future point when you are more experienced.
I feel a certain joy when I analyze a position on my own and then the computer confirms my thoughts! You cannot have this happen if you first turn on the engine when analyzing your games. I encourage you to do your own work first - at least a little - and then ask the computer for some assistance. 

Remember that your goal is not to find the best move in the position in your analysis. This is a by-product of your work, but your real goal is to uncover holes in your understanding or thought process so that you can correct it! The chess engine should be a tool - like a calculator - to check your own analysis and understanding of the game. 

When you find disagreements between your moves and the engine's, then do not blindly accept the engine's answer and move on. Why did your moves differ and - accepting that the engine in this particular case has the stronger move - how can you think differently (or what do you need to study) to help you find such moves in the future.

Accepting Uncertainty

One aspect of analyzing my games that I've come to appreciate more is that I won't always come up with the answers - at least right away. Sometimes we come up with positions that we just aren't sure what to do with. 

This could be in the opening. You or your opponent may play something that's out of your "book" knowledge and not listed among the various resources - e.g. databases, books, etc. You can spend some time and try to figure out the best response, but if after a reasonable effort you are still confused, it is okay to let it go for now.

Similarly, your analysis (perhaps with assistance from a chess engine) might reveal two or three viable moves in a middlegame position. It's okay if you can't decide which one is the best. Let it "simmer" for a while - maybe even months or years.

Sometimes, our future experiences and studies will cause something to "click" in our minds and what was once confusing now becomes very clear. This is the power of our mind to connect related information over time.

By learning to accept uncertainty in our conclusions, we can avoid some of the frustration that results in trying to find "the best moves" in our post-mortem analysis. All of this being said, it's important to put some effort into finding some answers, as we may encounter a similar position in the future and our efforts in the present will aid us when that happens.

Below is a video of the third and fourth steps of the game analysis process:

Game Analysis Process Part 3: Steps 3-4 and Conclusion - YouTube

Time Constraints and Practicality

Finally, I wanted to share a insights that I've come to realize in studying chess that encompasses the game analysis process in general.
  • You won't often have time to do game analysis process in-depth. It's okay to focus on just a few areas in your games.
  • You may tend to spend more time analyzing your wins than your losses - resist this urge and seek out your weaknesses (if you are looking to improve).
  • Analyzing for your own improvement is different than analyzing and annotating for publication or for other people. It's okay to be sloppy or use phrases or jargon that only you understand!
  • Celebrate the insights you garner from your analysis - even the smallest of discoveries!
  • Organization is both overrated and underrated. Find a system that works for you. Check out my article on workflows for some ideas.
  • Seek answers as if you will be seeing your position in a World Championship match, but accept that you may not have all the answers right away.
  • Don't do step 3 (corrections) on the same day that you play the game...sleep on it to gain objectivity.
  • Some analysis of a game is better than no analysis. Try to find just one thing that you can improve if you're short on time.

I hope you found these reflections on the game analysis process helpful in your own game analysis. The four step process I wrote about is just a template. As I've studied chess over the last few years - squeezing time in between three children, work, and home responsibilities - I've realized that sometimes we need to take short cuts and truncate elements of the process. 

However, I've also realized the importance of analyzing my games, so I wanted to encourage you to keep up these efforts in your own training.

Until next time, I wish you Better Chess!

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