What's wrong with club players? An MOT for us all

Overprotection and prophylaxis are all very well, Dave, but what about ordinary players, what do they need? I believe that we don't really know a lot about the chess thinking of ordinary players. There are some things that have been done on amateur games over the years (by de Groot, Euwe/Meiden, Webb, Heisman, Silman, Rubin/Emms and Davies) and there are a set of common beliefs about amateur play, but I think that amateurs are a lot more complex than is often suggested.

Amateurs are more diverse than is given credit for - they often have marked strengths and weaknesses, but these weakness and stylistic preferences may be very different between players. I was interested to look at this book which focuses on one particular amateur chess player, and offers some Grandmaster comments upon a game. [Steve Davis Plays Chess (Norwood/Davis), also published as Grandmaster meets Chess Amateur]

Norwood,D (2500) - Davis,S (1605) [C90], 1994

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Bxc6 dxc6 5.0-0

I am not happy with my Pawn structure



6.h3 Bxf3?

I thought it wasn't a good idea to get the Queen out at an early stage ". (but here it can't be harassed)



DN: " Where do your pieces belong?

SD: " Nf6, Bd6/c5, Qe7, O-O-O

DN: " Can't find anything to fault there

7...Nf6 8.d3 Nd7

SD thought about:

[8...Be7 idea 9.Bg5 but... (9.Qg3! hence the chosen move) 9...Nd7!;

8...h6 " to stop the pin "]

9.Nd2 Bd6 10.Nc4 0-0 11.Ne3 Qf6 12.Qg4

[12.Qg3 was analysed: 12...Qg6 13.Qxg6 hxg6]

12...Nc5 13.Nf5 Qg6



[14.Qxg6 analysed: 14...fxg6? x e5]

14...Rfe8 15.Nh4 Qxg4

[15...Qe6 overlooked]


No Pawn breaks " DN

16...Ne6 17.f3


Maybe I should swap Bishops?

(Yes! see his own comment at move 8)

17...Nd4 18.Bxd4 exd4 19.f4

Oh hell

19...f6 20.g3 g5?



and he can check me on h6

21...c5 22.Kg2

He's going to double Rooks, I'll get the King out of the way

22...Kf7 23.fxg5 Re6?

[23...fxg5 24.Nxd6+]

24.gxf6 Rxf6 25.g5

From bad to worse


[cutting losses]

26.Rxf5+ Kg6 27.Rf6+ Kg7 28.Raf1 Be5 29.R6f5 Re8 30.Kh3 Re6 31.Rf7+ Kg6 32.Kg4 b6 33.Rd7 h6 34.gxh6 Kxh6 35.Rh1+ Kg6 36.Rdh7 Bd6? 37.R1h6# 1-0

This was the first time I had played Steve. During the course of the game I made several observations about his chess ability:

Reasonable grasp of strategy - understood the importance of the centre and the need to have active pieces

Positional understanding less adequate - did not appreciate the full importance of Pawns and Pawn structure.

Planning patchy - good at short-term planning, but found it difficult to formulate a long-term plan.

Calculates well but prone to tactical errors - poor sense of danger.

Little opening knowledge - did not know the general strategy behind one of the main line openings.

Good at assessing positions - main weakness here was a tendency to be over-pessimistic.

...These are among the most typical failings of the club/occasional chess player who wants to improve their game

-- NORWOOD in NORWOOD/DAVIS, Steve Davis plays Chess (a.k.a. Grandmaster Meets Chess Amateur)

Now, assuming that at least some of these might apply to at least some of us, let us review these comments one by one, and suggest some therapy.

I've recommended some books. This is the easy bit. There are lots of good books which will give you the ideas you need, rather fewer that will allow you to check your understanding and help you incorporate the ideas into your own play.

The best ways to improve in all respects are to study games, your own and others', and check out your conclusions. We don't do a lot of this in group coaching sessions, but that's what you should be doing.

Get hold of collected annotated games, or get some recommended to you. Pick games which illustrate the theme you are working on, pick openings which feature the theme, and pick games by players who are noted for their facility with your theme. Play through the games three times: once quickly to get a feel for the game and its phases/turning points, once slowly, making your own notes, and once comparing your notes to the annotator's. Games by the old masters like Tarrasch, Lasker and Capablanca, are all pretty useful, perhaps also some by the moderns like Alekhin, Botvinnik, Fischer and Nunn, but these are more complex. The older guys are useful for all points of study below, in my view - you can look to Lasker for his endgames, his tactical alertness, his preferred classical openings, and his swindles and general fighting spirit.

Reasonable grasp of strategy - understood the importance of the centre and the need to have active pieces

Comment (DR): I wonder if DN would say that after playing more games with SD. My scan through the openings in the Minor section at WECU suggest to me that at least some club players don't have a good understanding of the centre, in particular how to defend when your opponent has closed the centre (as in this game). Moreover, when asked to come up with some plans in a minority attack position (A), participants at a session recently came up with some rather passive plans (B) rather than more active ones (C).







What you can do to get better : We can play and study openings where the centre and activity are important (say, like the Scotch Game), we can study games by other players in our chosen openings (Lautier and Kasparov have been important in the recent theory of the Scotch, and earlier Penrose played the Gambit line), and study players whose style is marked by central control and/or piece activity (Tarrasch, Capa, Lasker, Alekhin, Tal).

Good further reading : Logical Chess (Chernev), The Middle Game (Vol. II, Euwe/Kramer).

Little opening knowledge - did not know the general strategy behind one of the main line openings.

Comment (DR): You would have thought with all those openings books out there, we'd be better than this, but we aren't.

What you can do to get better : DN's next step was to advise SD to play the Modern Defence, which I think is wholly mistaken. It is important to become an expert in your openings systems, but there is too much to the Modern to get a hold of for Minor players. What else, then? Pick something more straightforward, less flexible, more classical, more clearly characterised. You must also learn to combat the common 'no-theory' systems like the Stonewall.

This is potentially a huge topic, but Tony D's repertoire might run: Scotch, French or Petroff as Black, QGD Swiss as Black, with against the half-open defences: Tarrasch French, Panov Caro-Kann, Alapin Sicilian (three systems with overlapping Pawn structures), Exchange Alekhin, Be3 Pirc. I (DR) recommend: Italian Game (Giuoco Piano and related openings) as White, with against the half-open defences either the King's Indian Attack and/or a selection from Classical French, Classical Caro-Kann, Bb5 Sicilian, Exchange Alekhin, Be3 Pirc. As Black, as well as approving Tony's ideas, I would also look at the Semi-Slav or Stonewall Dutch.

The real point is to find a repertoire which suits you, which you believe in, and which has some consistency of style about it.

Good further reading : The Ideas Behind The Chess Openings (Fine), Chess Openings for Juniors (Walker), The Chessplayer's Battle Manual (Davies)

Calculates well but prone to tactical errors - poor sense of danger.

Comment (DR): This apparent contradiction is commonly found. We see tactics once they start happening, but can blunder terribly if the danger light is off

What you can do to get better : Tactics really is something you can get your eye in for. Euwe says: study, learn and revise all the basic ideas, then rehearse examples (in your mind or at the board). I came up with the mnemonic: J ust M ight F ind a N eat P owerful T actic for J umps M ates F orks N ets P ins and T ies. What we also need is a book of tactics with a realistic proportion of false leads and positions with no tactical solutions. No such book exists, but there are lots of straightforward tactics books. On developing a sense of danger: I've just done two sessions and looked at 111 games on this recently, so a quick run through the positions given there might give you a better sense of when the trap detector should be turned up a level.

Also, Steve didn't recognise real and apparent dangers - he was afraid of a measly check by a lone Knight, but didn't appreciate the concessions he was making on the king's-side.

Good further reading : Winning Chess (Chernev/Reinfeld), Test Your Chess IQ (Livshitz), Danger in Chess (Avni), Chess for Tigers (Webb). Games by Tarrasch, Lasker.

Good at assessing positions - main weakness here was a tendency to be over-pessimistic.

Comment (DR): Again, I wonder whether DN would still say this after playing many games with minor players. Club players seem to me to have a fine capacity for missing the positional point just as much as the tactical point. It's not that we are thinking about nothing, we are making some sense and noticing some features of the position, but we are often missing much more important features.

What you can do to get better : We need to review and refresh our stock of ideas, and check them out. I came up with the mnemonic To Know What Plan to Follow Look Carefully , for T actics, K ing safety, W eak squares & weak Pawns, P iece position, F orcing moves (initiative, breakthroughs), L ine control, C entre and space . Many books review the positional elements, but in terms of books for self-assessment we have a market of about one. So, we are back studying master games. On pessimism: this is again mostly attitude, but you might work on it by finding more resources in your old games, perhaps by playing over master games whose players might have shown a more forward-going attitude in similar positions.

Good further reading : The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played (Chernev), The Strategy of Chess (Cafferty), My System (Nimzovitch), Think/Plan Like A Grandmaster (Kotov), How to Reassess Your Chess (Silman), Test Your Positional Play (Bellin/Ponzetto). Games by Capa and Botvinnik.

Positional understanding less adequate - did not appreciate the full importance of Pawns and Pawn structure.

Comment (DR): I think Pawns and Pawn Structures are the easiest thing in chess to learn about (what's hard is linking the understanding to piece play).

What you can do to get better : Choose openings for study and play which have characteristic Pawn formations: Scotch Four Knights, French Defence, Caro-Kann Panov, Ruy Lopez Exchange all have these features. (I'll do a session on it if you like.)

Good further reading : The Middle Game Vol. 1 (Euwe & Kramer), Pawn Structures (Baburin), Test Your Positional Play (Bellin/Ponzetto). Games by Capa, Botvinnik.

Planning patchy - good at short-term planning, but found it difficult to formulate a long-term plan.

Comment (DR): Not all positions require long-term planning - watch for priorities. There are some positions which have marked long-term features which can be easily understood. In this game Black had a long-term headache on the Queen's-side and with the dark-squared Bishop, which he sort of recognised but did nothing positive about. When I showed this game without identifying the combatants a disdainful howl went up when White provoked the exchange of Queens - "White's just playing for a draw". No - this was part of White's winning plan! Exchanges are like other moves, they make a difference. In this case, White would like to get to an endgame, so the exchange improves White's chances.

What you can do to get better : Play and study some games with 'long-term' features - things like weak Pawns or Bad Bishops, in openings like the French Tarrasch, QGD or Exchange Ruy - and see how these features are reflected or superceded in the following play. Planning comes down to: Ready, Aim, Fire! Ready - Notice and assess the positional elements (see below), Aim - form a realistic plan based on an appraisal of the chances for each side, then Fire! - pick the moves which best meet your needs.

Good further reading : Think/Plan Like A Grandmaster (Kotov), The Chess Struggle in Practice (Bronstein - some of the best bits are quoted by Kotov), How to Reassess Your Chess (Silman). Botvinnik games again.


The endgame

Comment (DR): It didn't arise in the Davis game, but club players are widely regarded as being poor at endgames, and everything I've observed at the club reinforces this!

What you can do to get better : (1) know your onions - get to grips with the theory of basic endings and general endgame principles, (2) study the play and writings of endgame specialists like Capa, Smyslov, Mednis, Karpov, (3) play "endgame openings" with an early exchange of Queens - Ruy Lopez Exchange, and French Tarrasch for example.

Good further reading : Winning Endgames (Kosten), Capablanca's 60 Best Chess Endings (Chernev), Rate Your Endgame (Mednis/Crouch).

Panic and Collapse

Comment (DR): You notice in the game SD panicked when he was attacked and lashed out with the horrible 20...g5 , instead of looking for defensive improvements like centralising Rooks or finding Queen's-side counterplay, and later he allowed mate in one. By the time it came to cutting his losses it was already over. Quite often in club chess games are won by the more determined as often as by the stronger player.

What you can do to get better : Again, the blunders sessions hold some clues - so often I was writing "from the frying pan into the fire", and "panic" or "bluff". This is a change of attitude as much as theory. Try looking at the games of the great swindlers - Marshall, Lasker, Webb - and the great defensive players - Steinitz, Petrosian, Karpov - and the counter-punchers like Korchnoi.

Good further reading : Chess for Tigers (Webb), The Chess Amateur (Silman).

Inconsistency: know all the words, but there is no consistency or rigour.

Comment (DR): It takes a bit of time to spot this, but listen out for it. DN didn't particularly emphasise this in his notes, but SD was in two minds about whether to get shot of his dark-squared Bishop. Undoubtedly he should have done - he did talk about it more than once, but never got around to it. I think this lack of clarity is more characteristic of club players than lack of knowledge. Chess positions are complex and often pretty balanced, so it is often possible to talk for a long time about a chess game without saying anything wrong, but without really getting to grips with it.

What you can do to get better : This goes back to the first point about studying games and checking out your conclusions, and the study of guys like Botvinnik who have a well-marked analytical prowess.

Good further reading : How to Reassess Your Chess (Silman), The Amateur's Mind (Silman) Test Your Positional Play (Bellin/Ponzetto).


OK, get that lot sorted out and then get back to me!

Books with amateur games

DAVIES The Chessplayers Battle Manual

EUWE/MEIDEN Chess Master vs. Chess Amateur

HEISMAN The Improving Annotator

RUBIN/EMMS Chess for the Rank and File

SILMAN The Amateur's Mind

WEBB Chess for Tigers


Useful books for club players

Don't buy the lot - just one from each category (opening/strategy/endgames) - start with the ones marked * first, then **

AVNI Danger in Chess

BABURIN Pawn Structures

BELLIN/PONZETTO. Test Your Positional Play

BRONSTEIN The Chess Struggle in Practice (some of the best bits are quoted by KOTOV),

CAFFERTY, The Strategy of Chess

*CHERNEV Capablanca's 60 Best Chess Endings

**CHERNEV, The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played

*CHERNEV, Logical Chess


DAVIES The Chessplayer's Battle Manual

**EUWE & KRAMER, The Middle Game Vols. I/II

FINE, The Ideas Behind The Chess Openings

**KOSTEN, Winning Endgames

KOTOV, Think/Plan Like A Grandmaster

**LIVSHITZ, Test Your Chess IQ, Vol I

MEDNIS/CROUCH. Rate Your Endgame


**PACHMAN Modern Chess Strategy

**SILMAN. How to Reassess Your Chess

*WALKER Chess Openings for Juniors