Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Silver Tape Chess

Silver Tape Chess

A few pieces of advice for an improving chess player

Draft 1.0

Why Chess?

I started playing some correspondence chess some years ago to have some fun and to give the old brain some work-out. Soon I realized that my passion for chess was far greater than my chess skills. Still, I wanted to learn a little more and to improve my chess skills. In this pamphlet I have tried to collect a few observations and experiences made during ongoing chess development.


If you are interested in becoming a better runner, then you should do a lot of running. The same holds for chess. The best way to become a better player is to play a lot of slow games. Why slow games? Playing a slow paced game will offer the best chances to think deep about your moves. Furthermore, thinking deeply about your moves at reasonably pace will offer better chances to evaluate more possible moves and compare them instead of only playing “hunch based” moves in a blitz game. Always try to discuss your games with your opponent afterwards. Also, create a “database” with all your games and try to analyze them in your chess study chamber.

To find time for slow games might be a challenge but these is still hope! IM Andrew Martin made the claim that as little as 15 minutes per day of quality training would be enough for a steady improvement of, say, 1 ELO-point per week. So, what is “quality training”? If training should be effective then you have to make your training as close to the real thing as possible. Furthermore you need to push your limits.

The Top Candidate for daily training is of course tactics problems. There are plenty of resources to provide tactics problems for free or for a smallish membership fee. There are books, internet sites and smart phone apps. The nice thing about software solutions for tactics training is that the software will keep track of your development and offer problems at a suitable level.

Make sure to spend extra time on all problems you fail to solve (some web applications will automatically save all failed problems in a special database) in order to try to understand the solution and to figure out why you didn’t see the solution in the first place. By focusing on failed problems you will learn new patterns and improve your pattern recognition.

Most games between chess games up to decent hobby player level, say 1800 ELO, are decided by simple mistakes of a tactical nature. To sharpen your tactical eye and pattern recognition is the High Road to improved chess results. Make sure to use a tactics database based on problems from real games when studying tactics. Some training material offer selected problems which might lead to a disproportionate number of fancy Queen sacrifices which is a rare guest in real life games.

My favorite tactics drill is “three strikes and you are out”. I set a timer at 20 minutes. The goal for the tactics drill is to solve nine problems before I fail three problems. In my experience, the combination of the limited time and the limit to the number of failures makes me work a little harder. Also, three new patterns from failed problems is probably enough for the brain to digest for one day.

So, Tactics is the bread and butter but what is next in line? Openings or Endgames?

“Openings teach you openings. Endgames teach you chess” – Stephan Gerzadowicz

Endgame problems do have fewer pieces on the board and offer much better chances to learn how the pieces can work together in coordination. Solving endgame problems is a not too distant cousin to ordinary tactics problems. However, endgame problems offer challenges not to be seen in ordinary tactics problems (the use of zugzwang, for example). The argument for studying openings is that all games have an opening but not all games reach an endgame. This is very true of course but you can “survive” the opening phase of a chess games by using well established general guiding rules. To focus on understanding these general rules will save you a lot of chess hours which can be used more efficiently.

Training Schedules

I have tried them all and they all failed worse than the most recent diet sensation. We have all been there. Where is the trap and why do training schedules tend to fail? They are just too ambitious and sometimes too complex. In my humble opinion, the best way to start a new habit is to start with gentle steps. Going to the gym three times a week does not sound like much but to actually get there might be quite an obstacle. How about aiming for a five minute walk everyday and then a daily ten minute walk next week?

The same goes for chess training. A daily dose of 15-20 minutes of chess training might not sound like much but to make a habit out of it might be harder than you think. So, the key to forming a new habit is a gentle start and then slowly and steadily increasing the activity. How about starting with a single daily chess problem?
It takes time, perhaps as much as 3-4 weeks, to establish a new habit. A gentle start will be a success factor towards establishing a habit but you also need to keep track of your achievements. Try something as simple as a large “X-mark” in your calendar.

The Stoyko Exercise

The Stoyko Exercise or The Twenty Minute Exercise as Heisman calls it is interesting and useful. The idea is simply to deeply analyze any foggy middlegame position for twenty minutes. The goal is to calculate and evaluate as many lines from the position as possible within the twenty minutes. You need to document all your lines and your evaluation. For the best training result you should discuss your lines and evaluations with a stronger player but comparing to the evaluations from a chess engine is also pretty good.

My suggestion is to choose positions from canonical chess games which make it possible to compare your thoughts to the annotations from some chess book. Another idea is to use a few positions from your own set of openings. Thinking deeply about positions arising in your own openings will be well spent time. Bonus points for combining these ideas (i.e. using positions from canonical games by your chess hero playing your openings)

The inventor Stoyko himself claims to have gained 100 points every time he did the exercise. Should that be 10% true, then I am one happy patzer!

Replaying Master Games

Replaying Master Games is a great way to improve your chess skills. The best way to do it is in a “Guess-the-Move” fashion. It does not make much sense to try to guess the moves in the opening phase of the game unless you are replaying a game using an opening you are trying to understand or learn. The suggested procedure is to try to guess the moves of the winning player starting from, say, move 10. Cover up the list of moves and try to guess the moves of the winning player. To keep score of the number of correctly guessed moves after the opening phase can be a good thing. You can use the running median of number of the correctly guessed moves from the last 21 games as a crude way of measuring your development (an idea suggested by Purdy). Another good thing is to write down all the moves you guessed wrong and your reasoning behind the move you suggested.

An alternative approach to skipping the opening phase of the game is to see how the general guiding principles (revisit your favorite beginner’s chess book!) is applied by the players during the opening phase.

A fine guiding principle is to study master games in chronological order. The games of Paul Morphy are an excellent starting point.

A controversial approach is to try to memorize a few of your favorite chess games. You will soon realize that reciting Morphy’s Opera House game is not much of a party trick but there are maybe other benefits from trying to memorize games. In my experience, memorizing chess games will make me try a little harder to understand what is “going on” in the game. The goal to memorize a game could be used as an indirect motivational factor to gain a little deeper understanding of the game under study.

Correspondence Chess

Correspondence is a great way to get playing experience. Playing correspondence chess using a web site, smart phone app or email is convenient and access able. Some web sites offer a great feature which is to store private notes during the game. To document and review your own analysis and your own thought process is worthwhile.

Beware of game overload poisoning. Try to be patient and keep the number of ongoing games fairly low. It is much better to play a handful of games highly focused than to play a massive number of games without much thought. Play with your friends and/or Study Buddies. Avoid players with unbeaten win records. They are just too strong or engine users.
Chess Books

My chess skills have improved but not as fast as expected. However, when it comes to chess books consumption, then I am of super grandmaster caliber. Please note that to consumption and reading is to vastly different things. The bookshelves are filled with books that are almost unread beyond the introduction. The typical case of an unread chess book would be a random opening monograph. Opening books are the honey trap for chess improvers and from a practical perspective a scam aimed at almost all book buying chess players. I am not saying that there is something wrong with the material in the opening books. Most of the well established chess authors produce top class information presented in crystal clear fashion. There are pages after pages of detailed and exact information on optimal play in some opening variation. Can you see where I am heading? Well, your average opponent will not play optimal chess. No matter how many books you have studied and maybe even learned on your favorite opening, you opponent will play something out-of-the-book which is totally neglected by the authors. You are on your own.

And another thing: at the very end of some lengthy variation, the author will claim that white has a tiny edge, “+=” or so, and then leave you on your own to prove it. Again, you are on your own. But Hey! Didn’t white start with a tiny edge?

There are a few books that I have read and re-read. All of them tend to be books by passionate authors who make me eager to just play!

FM Dan Heisman teased the chess community with the following thought experiment; “Suppose an average chess enthusiast learned every single line from some one volume chess opening encyclopedia. How much stronger would that player become?” Dan’s guess is about 50 ELO points!

The best books for improving chess players are collections with annotated games where the annotations are written for improving chess players. “My 60 Memorable Games” by Bobby Fischer is a few years down the road.

Study Buddies and a Chess Hero

“Improvement” is basically to do things better. It is either adding strengths or removing weaknesses. A Study Buddy is a golden resource. To study chess together with a friend makes it more sociable but also a greater learning experience. Different players have different strengths and weaknesses. Discussing and exchanging ideas will help you both to identify weak areas in your chess knowledge and thereby offer a better chance improve in those areas. Working on the strong aspects of your chess skills is very tempting but it is easy to reach a state of diminishing returns. If you are strong at middlegames and stink at endgames, then working another hour on middlegames would be inefficient compared to working for an hour on your endgame skills.
It is not exactly a pleasure (a bit of rhino skin helps!) but a Study Buddy can help you to a more objective view of your strengths and weaknesses as a chess player.

To pick a Chess Hero and then to learn more about your hero can be a great way to learn more about chess in general and to pick up a few ideas about your chess opening repertoire.


“Your only task in the opening is to reach a playable middlegame” – Lajos Portisch

Searching for the optimal Chess Opening and the Optimal Training Schedule has wasted many of my chess hours. Read the Portisch quote again and relax. Some authorities on chess development claim that playing opening that suits your “style” will slow down your improvement. Think of it as a special case of the Law of diminishing returns. Other Chess Philosophers claim that the concept of style is neither applicable to improvers nor to strong players. So, if style is out of the window then I think there is a solid case for playing stodgy openings. Playing something solid and perhaps slightly passive, especially as black, will be your helping hand into a playable middlegame.

Playing something like the Old Indian (ECO: A53-A55) versus all non-e4 openings fits the bill. Adding another “old-timer” such as the Philidor Defence (ECO: C41) and you have all ground covered. The Scandinavian Defence (or Center Counter Defence, ECO: B01) is another solid alternative.

My Silver Tape Chess repertoire is inspired by Bird’s Opening (ECO: A02) as white and Old Indian/Scandinavian as black. Why Bird’s Opening? It is slightly under the radar end something played a handful of times by my own Chess Hero Bent Larsen. You will find a data dump of games where Larsen is using my repertoire in the appendix.

The London system or the Colle system might be the top candidates for a stodgy alternative as white but I have not enjoyed playing any of these openings (The Fun Factor).

Internet Resources

Yes, it is all there! Just about everything you need on your own Quest for Chess Enlightenment can be found on the Internet legal and free of charge: Chess Engines, Database Software, Chess Games and Tactics problems just to name a few. There are quite a few quality chess blogs devoted to chess improvement.

Appendix: Model games for the Silver Tape repertoire (pdf) and the same games as a pgn-file

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