The most underrated way to work on strategy
Studying tactics is relatively simple: choose from one of the many tactics workbooks available and solve the puzzles. When it comes to working on strategy, the path isn’t as clear. You can review master games, but in my experience, when I try this, my mind tends to wander. Often I play over the moves too quickly without really understanding the reasons behind them.
This is why I like “solitaire chess,” playing through a game while trying to guess every move. One way of seeing this technique is as a kind of supercharged game review. It’s a way of reviewing a game that makes it literally impossible to zone out: you have to pay attention in order to guess the next move.
The setup for this method is extremely simple. You just choose a game from a player you want to follow and play through the game “as” that player. When it’s their turn to move, write down the move you would play. Then reveal the actual move played and put it on the board, along with the opponent’s response. Repeat move by move until the end of the game.
Why solitaire chess?
I’m as big of an advocate for puzzles as the next guy, but puzzles have a big problem: they only cover one kind of position. Most puzzle sources only (or mostly) include positions where you have a forced win. But this type of position is only a small percentage of all the positions you’ll face in a real chess game.
It’s as though you want to become a better tennis player and you only train overhead smashes. Sure, if you’re at the net and your opponent lobs the ball to you, you want to be able to put it away consistently, but how do you get to that point?
If you want to succeed in a real game, you need to train for all the scenarios you’ll face in a game, not just the final blow. The best way to do this, of course, is to play real games. But this isn’t always feasible for all sorts of reasons: time, travel, cost, etc.
Another upside of solitaire chess is that it ensures you see all kinds of positions at the same frequency that they occur in real games. By following players you want to emulate, you can also expand your range of ideas. And solitaire chess is very easy to set up at home.
How to do it
There are a few ways to set up solitaire chess, ranging from low tech to high tech.
If you prefer the low tech route, you’ll want to pick up an annotated game collection. This is great because the explanations can help you understand the moves. Set up a board and cover the unplayed moves with a notecard or another book. Going move by move, guess the move for the player you’re following. As with puzzles, I would definitely recommend that you write down your answers. This forces you to commit to a decision and gives you a valuable record that you can review at the end of the game. Once you’ve decided on your move, slide down your notecard to reveal the move played. Put that move, along with the opponent’s reply, on the board. Repeat the process for the next move, and so on to the end of the game.
If you decide to go with the “high tech” route (not actually all that high tech, but you can do it online), you’ll need some games from the player you want to follow. One good source for this is chessgames.com. Most famous players have their own page with a “notable games” section. You could do the exercise directly from the chessgames replayer, adjusting your browser window so you can’t see the moves. Or you could copy the pgn and import it into lichess. I like to use the “hamburger” icon in the lower right to hide the pane with the moves, and then press the forward arrow on the keyboard when I’m ready to see the next move. You can also search Lichess studies for the player you’re interested in. Most famous players have many studies that have already been created by other users.
If you’re a Chessbase user, you can use Chessbase’s dedicated feature for this technique.
Choosing a Player
The most common advice would be to follow a player whose style you want to emulate. For example, Morphy for development, attacking, and tactics; Tal for sacrifices and imagination; or Petrosian for prophylactic thinking.
This works really well, but you don’t only have to follow the games of famous players. One technique I like to use for preparing openings is to put the position I’m interested in on the board, adjust the Lichess database filters for my rating range, and play through the “Recent games” as solitaire chess. This effectively gives you experience playing opponents at your level. Just keep in mind these games will usually feature many mistakes by both sides, so you can’t take either side’s moves as gospel.
Finally, a few more tips to get the most out of this exercise.
Don’t worry about guessing every move correctly. In most chess positions, there are multiple viable moves, and no matter which player you’re following, they sometimes make mistakes as well.
Instead, focus on understanding the player’s thought process. How do they make decisions and navigate the game? You want to get a sense of, “Here’s what Morphy would do here.” Once you get to that point, you’ve essentially created a mini Paul Morphy advisor that you can call upon in any game.
Pay special attention to moves you didn’t consider. This is an idea I learned from Artur Yusupov about reviewing your own games, but it applies equally well to solitaire chess. One of the big benefits of this exercise is to expand your imagination, so if you run across a move that wasn’t on your radar at all, really try to understand it so you could use that idea or thought process in your own games.
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