When we first started running coaching sessions in the early 1990s, the set-up was a bit different. We had lots of handouts on paper, we had a separate room to go and be noisy in, and there wasn't an awful lot of help available.
Over a decade on, where are we?
Well, one thing that is going to be the same is the self-help feel of the sessions. I'm not that good a player to pose as an expert and there are lots of skills and knowledge around the room that it would be foolish not to draw on. Also, I can't be an expert in what sort of chessplayer you are -- only you can find that out -- and so, we're going to need you to take stock of your play and what you might want to work on. The starting point for thinking about that still needs to be the study of your own games.
The big differences these days are:
1. we don't have a separate room, so I won't do sessions until the club championship has finished.
2. lots more people these days have computers and access to the Internet.
3. There is more help available; I couldn't have imagined the explosion in chess publishing that seems to have happened, filling all sorts of niches that I had to struggle to find examples for. Special mention must go to the 'Starting Out...' and 'Improving...' series of over-priced chess books, just the right sort of level in one place, and to Jonathan Rowson's books about chess 'The Seven Deadly Chess Sins' and 'Chess for Zebras' (which flatteringly mentions this web site, although I think GM Rowson came here only to raid my quotes collection ). My own interest in chess psychology for many years had to make do with only de Groot's classic but rather austere thesis and Krogius' wonderful collection of essays. Now, there are more books just about chess psychology than most people ever buy on chess altogether.
4.Also, having plonked all the handouts on a web site thinking this was some sort of contribution, there are now fabulously many other web sites discussing chess improvement and offering materials and advice. Special mention must go to:
To be honest, it would take me more time than I've got to find and assess and make recommendations from the wealth of material out there. But if you find one you like, do let me know.
I think there are other changes, some of them in me. In 1993, I was a sparky and ambitious 32 (that's my age, OK, and not my grade). In 2007, I am a fairly sparky 46, but my ambitions are distinctly more modest. I had this secret agenda when running the earlier coaching sessions: I know the best way to learn something is to set yourself the task of teaching it to someone else. So, I did rather hope for some sort of improvement in my own play.
I came across this discouraging graph recently, which may explain some of the reasons for that:
This would suggest that I'm lucky to have maintained my grade over 15 years, and not have it decline. I think the other reason is being realistic about study time: my work seems to take more and more of my time and energy, and a lot of the energy I've had for chess I have put into producing chess books with Tim Onions and Hardinge Simpole.
I pinched that chart from Elo's excellent exploration of his own rating system, The Ratings of Chessplayers Past and Present . It also features this next chart, which is most interesting:
Steps, right? Now, you would think that young Julian or his mentor at the time, Leonard Barden, could have given some sort of account as to what Julian realised or solved about chess play in order to make these distinct steps forward. In fact, I think this is not the case, and therefore tells us something about the occasionally mysterious nature of chess improvement. You may be told something one day, understand it later, put it into practice even later, and actually get the hang of it later still. And you need to integrate it with whatever else you might be doing with your chess thinking at the time... I think this should help you keep optimistic, even if you don't see immediate benefits from your study and practice.
The 'steps' metaphor rather suggests a ladder, up which we can climb through study and practice.
I think Glenn Flear once decided when he was graded 170, that he just needed to improve 7 points each year for 10 years, and he'd be a GM. And so he was...
But as a former student of zoology, I am used to discarding 'ladder' models in favour of more realistic pictures showing the more complex and contradictory state of nature:
Where are you on the bush? The ladder suggests that chess is only one thing and there's only one main route to travel. I think chess is more complex, and our routes through improvement are more elaborate, than the ladder model suggests.
A more helpful model to think about your own chess I think is... Imagine a player graded BCF 100 [ELO 1700 or so? They changed the system and I no longer feel confident about translating grades]. I imagine they would have strengths and also some weaknesses. In fact, they may perform better than your average 100-grade player at some things, and worse at others. If there are a dozen or so things you need to get right to be a good chessplayer [*], we might be able to draw up a profile of our player:
So, our player excels at F, G and L, is most deficient in B and E, is far from wonderful at M, and doesn't even know what J is. [It may be that I don't either, but it may be that it doesn't matter at our level.]
In order to help you think about your own profile, try this:
List the three most important things you try to get right during a chess game, or the three things that you think you are best at.
Now list the three most important things you want to try and improve -- perhaps thinking about the three most common reasons why you think you lose chess games.
OK, now compare your answers with those of other people. Somewhere between you, you might have a list of a dozen things. [Having looked at (and discussed) this list, you might want to change your mind about your initial two sets of triplets. EXAMPLE ]
Now take the scoresheets from your last dozen games -- slow games, not blitz games on the Internet or against computers, but proper chess with a human opponent and a couple of hours' thinking time -- and think about each game against the list of a dozen things. Then, come up with a your final sets of triplets, your three strengths and the three things you want to work on.
So, bring your list of things you want to work on to the session next week, and we'll see if we have any overlap. Then we can think about a programme. See you there.
[* Although Dan Heisman says there are five: tactics, activity, time management, thought process, general principles. Those headings are broad enough to be worth dividing up, I expect.]