“A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” —Mark Twain
Let’s get this one out of the way. Compared to most players I admire, I have not studied that much. I was a chess player—I liked playing. These days as a professional coach I see the value of the scholarly aspect of the game.
There’s just so much material. It can be overwhelming even for this chess fanatic. To me, I’ve concisely laid out what I believe the be a practical key for each of the game’s stages:
• Openings: Logic, logic, logic.
• Middlegames: Themes, themes, themes.
• Endgames: Practice, practice, practice.
The further I progressed in my playing career, the less I was encouraged to study openings. Instead I was told to do some study, recognize key themes, keep in mind (but not necessarily memorize) move order nuances, and develop comfort by playing blitz and tournament games alike. Logic can be custom built but must have a solid, principled foundation to support it. I had to develop my own conception of logic based on my theory and experience.
It begins in books. Even today with YouTube and merciless engines on personal computers, I don’t know of any strong player without at least a small library of chess books. It’s not unheard of to find a series of multiple thick volumes on a single opening. And the different authoring styles are just as numerous.
I’ve found that when going through books heavy in sub-lines, it’s so easy for me to get off-track.
Tip #1: When dealing with dense sublines (some include sub-sub lines) analyze them as a “semi-fresh” game.
That simply means after analysis of the text line, I usually rewind to 3 or 4 moves before break-off point and then proceed with the next moves and the sub variation. This allows me to remember the logic leading up to the position but to also not exhaust myself with reiteration of all moves. Of highest importance is to analyze the differences and similarities between the variations. I write them in the book margins. You can see why it is different, what changes for you and what stays the same for you. This avoids having to remember move orders—or at least cuts down on it.
That’s not to say I never studied.
Most players I know will do at minimum a little dabbling in systemic (rather than highly theoretical) openings. I did a lot of work with this because it fits nicely into my logic over lines approach; it encompasses thematic, usually straightforward sets of ideas against a multitude of opponent’s responses. In my experience, there are not nearly as many move order nuances (potential traps, etc.) as other openings. Yet there is still a substantial amount of literature out there to choose from.
Not to mention the opening was very conducive to my style: creative license, leaving the book, king attacks, and having Black is no excuse to not attack first.
There was a line I hated so much because it turned the tables on almost all of that. The 5.f3 Sämisch. Dare I say I feared it. With Black usually enjoying kingside pressure, this move almost always prepares queenside castling. And we know what opposite sides castling means. (It’s also OK if you don’t…it basically just has a different flavor from same side castling.)
This is where studying specific lines does come in handy. For me, it’s mainly a confidence thing. Once you’ve developed experience and skill, you still need to keep searching for additional tools to better do the job.
As part of a weekly tournament game, I knew a week ahead of time I was going to play NM Selby Anderson with Black. I knew what he played, as he got me with it once before. So I spent the week booking up. The preparation was indispensable. I was able to materialize that study for a good long time afterward (and probably could still today.)
The following analysis is not very deep, however I hope it is wide enough to be leisurely ingested. [Disclaimer: Not engine verified and no sweat broken. Suggestions are welcomed and encouraged.] For those not really into chess but reading this regardless (thank you, by the way): I attempt to tell a story in the annotations describing my thoughts.
This was my first master scalp in a tournament game. It was a significant reinforcement in me of the importance of preparation. Although I’ve tried and prayed at times to remember everything at once, it has never been successful. The study-preparation game can therefore be a tricky process. It doesn’t guarantee you will come up big when it counts. But what’s the endgame? My philosophy: work for it, develop comfort, have faith, give yourself a chance and keep going back for more. And always be willing to learn.