Coaching for Juniors

[all] 13th May 2007. Coaching 2007 Part 1: Juniors

My congratulations to my esteemed friend and occasional team-mate Mark Abbott, who put on another ten points to his grade last year.nbsp; When we played last year in the summer, I discovered he had played about 70 match and tournament games over the season, while I barely played 20.nbsp; It's a harsh realisation, but I think I'm never going to improve while playing so little.nbsp; But I did have a better tournament [this year at East Devon]... Though if I had had a worse one, I think I might have taken up Bridge.

I've not done much new by way of adult coaching these last few years, apart from having the persistent arrogance to offer advice to club members who show me their games.nbsp; And I don't do coaching sessions with the junior club; they are too varied in strength to anything sensible with them as a group, so in a similar way I restrict myself to heckling while they play.  However, I was prompted by the U14 team's latest outing to think about how group coaching of young players might be handled.  My conclusions currently are four fold:

1. Juniors do need a different approach and beginners' books for adults are simply not suitable.  Neither are all beginners' books really good for beginners!  Some people who have really thought seriously about the best way to engage juniors with that are appropriate to their level are:

ChessKids -- All good stuff with a lot of things you can do interactively online.  I quote from their site:
"chess is hard"

I haven't bought into this material but the Professor has been thorough and imaginative in devising exercises -- for example, the task of arranging a selection of pieces in the corner of the board so that it's checkmate.  There are many fine chessplayers who write books but they have forgotten how hard it is to learn chess from scratch.  Jim Mitch is someone has been over that so many times with so many kids that he has mapped out how to take those first steps in chess in detail and offers many original ideas.

c. Alex Bartashnikov's little computer games which offer genuinely engaging games which variously emphasise sequencing and spotting attacks.  [Chess Mazes] in particular is excellent.  An honourable mention too for Gerry Quinn's Detective Chess -- but this can be hard for some.

d. Winning Chess Exercises for Children (Coakley).  Very good selection -- one of a series of three (to date) -- also suitable for adults!  I like his ideas of using simple coloured covers and cartoons...

2. All the tactics training books and CDs that I have seen suffer from the very great flaw that a name="allsoluble"all the positions are soluble.  Who on earth would clutter their books with dead positions, one might ask? Yet knowing there is a solution does make the positions a hundred times easier to solve.  [I have written on this before but publishers have chosen to ignore me...]

Here's Mullen and Moss, in the section span style="font-style: italic;">Missed Opportunities of their fine little book 'Blunders and Brilliancies'.

No. 8

Alapin-Levitsky, St.Petersburg, 1911; White
to play

The most plausible reason for Alapin not having seen the winning combination [it's mate in 4 -- DR] was that he did not expect there to be one.  The reader, who faces no such uncertainty, should have little trouble in discovering what was overlooked." Mullen/Moss
That realisation that you have to look seems to be at least as important as any calculative ability.  I find I can normally guess the key moves of 'Find the Winning Continuation' positions in the British Chess Magazine at least half the time after a short glance, yet I can't see all the tactical points of the position even if I sit there for an hour.   What you really need for a proper test of your decision making is to have... Well, what might you have?   Say, a PGN database of 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations but with a random 500 of the positions doctored so that the tactics don't actually work.   I don't fancy the task of doctoring very much, but that would be a very valuable resource for coaches. Or you could have a book, with six positions on a page, and in two there's a winning tactic, in three there's nothing happening yet, and in one there's a tempting possibility which drops you into a trap.  It's obviously harder work than collecting pretty finishes, but I am convinced it would be better training [Postscript: I became so convinced of my argument that I'm now writing just such a book...].  The best book I know which leans in this direction are Chris Ward's It's Your Move/Chess Choice Challenge, where he uses amusing multiple-choice questions.  I think they're very good -- although with just one position per page they had better be!  The positions are quite variable in 'level', I think, and even these books still have too many positions with a 'point', so you usually know that if you do see a point it's probably one the author expects you to find. [There's an analogy from natural history: birds trained to look for one type of prey all the time do very well in tests; if they have to look for two or three types at once (which may or may not be there) then their performance plummets.]
3. There just aren't that many tests of positional sense at all...  And some of those that exist are quite hard for juniors: I have in mind 'Test your positional play' (Bellin/Ponzetto) and Bent Larsen's Good Move Guide.  So I think the first task is to collect a number of positions which might make suitable test material for the club player.  If there's enough available, it might again be a good idea to prepare a mix of soluble and insoluble positions, that is, some which have a clearly best positional move and some where almost any move is as good as any other.  I'm trying to find copies of all Jeff Coakley's books; in the blue book ('... Exercises...'), there is on most of the exercise sheets one position with a positional solution, not a tactical one.
4. Endgame training... is a bit of a puzzle too.  There is a great deal of theory, like openings, but you rarely get to use it directly.  Dan Heisman opines:
"I have heard from students about instructors teaching players rated 1200-1300 Philidor and Lucena positions. Yet I know someone who lost an easily drawable Philidor position because he did not know the technique and never heard of it. My point? That player was me: I had been playing tournament chess for 5½ years and my USCF rating was about 2100! Sure, if I had known the technique I would not have lost, but the point is that I got to 2100 without ever even hearing about the Philidor draw because such specific knowledge is only marginally useful (not useless!) and I was pretty good at each of the Big Five."

I don't think this is entirely fair. I can think of only two games in the last 20 years where I've had to play a pure King and Pawn endgame. But the ideas I learned studying K+P endgames (opposition, squeezing, zugzwang, in the square...) I've probably used in any number of games, and the threat to swap off into a winning K+P ending occurs constantly. The same may be true for the Philidor and Lucena positions: I've had Philidor maybe twice and Lucena twice, but the ideas crop up over and over again.

pThe theory is easy enough to get across, but there is still a requirement to come up with a similar mix of examples as test material: some requiring exact analysis of forcing lines, some where you have a strong positional move to make, and others which are examples of normal play, where there is nothing critical to do and any decent move would strengthen your position.  I very much liked the 'How Good Is Your Chess' approach in the Mednis and Crouch book 'Rate your Endgame', but it  is pretty stretching for most players (as is the study-based Livshitz/Speelman 'Test your Endgame Play').  I think I'd sooner see a bunch of positions drawn from practical play, maybe from Capablanca's games, where accuracy and sense are required without bewilderingly deep analysis or fantastic finesses.  It wouldn't be too hard to whizz through Chernev's book and pick out a few positions from each game where the move chosen has some modest instructional value.
Time, time... Where is the time to do all this research, find all these games, write all these books?