The Best Way To Do Exercises
There are many ways to work on chess, but if you give me 30 minutes to improve my game, I’ll do focused work on difficult exercises. To me, this is the most fundamental form of chess training, apart from playing. And yet, the more players I work with as a coach, the more I find, almost no one does this.
At least, not in the way that’s most effective. And this is a case where the details matter. So I thought it would be useful to go through how to set up exercises for maximum improvement.
Use a physical chess board
In general, you should train in conditions that resemble the conditions you’ll have to perform in as much as possible. So if your end goal is to excel in OTB tournaments, it makes sense to use a physical board, because that’s what you’ll be using when you have to perform in the context that really matters.
Looking at a real, 3d board is in fact quite different from looking at a 2d diagram. If you spend all your training time looking at diagrams on a screen, when you get to the tournament, you may find looking at a physical board disorienting. Seeing the board in a different way than you’re used to can really disrupt your board vision. It’s best to practice in advance so you can feel comfortable at the board and focus on finding good moves.
Write down your solutions
This is essential because it forces you to commit to an answer. If you just have some general ideas, it’s all too easy after looking at the solution to say, “Yeah, I saw most of that.” If you write down your solutions, it’s all on paper and you can’t fool yourself into thinking you saw more than you did.
Having the solutions recorded also allows you to track your progress and make sure you’re working with a source of appropriate difficulty.
Choose the right difficulty level
I agree with FM Peter Giannatos (as quoted in Ben Johnson’s new book!***) that you should focus on exercises that take around 5-10 minutes each, and where you can solve about 70% correctly.
The reason for the 5-10 minutes guideline is with this type of training you’re looking for positions that force you to go beyond your initial intuition and use a structured thought process. There is also value in doing “fast” tactics, but those I prefer to just solve from a screen or diagram – otherwise setting up the position takes too much of the study time. 5-10 minutes is a solid amount of time to think, but you don’t want to go much over that, because using more than 10 minutes for a single move would rarely be good time management in a real game.
Likewise, 70% correct is a good balance, where the exercises are challenging and pushing your limits, but not so hard that you simply can’t understand the solution. I find that many of the highly motivated chess players who read this newsletter work with sources that are too hard for them. The logic, I suppose, is that if you could improve by working with a source at your level, you could improve even more with an even harder source. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like this. If you work with sources that are over your head, you’ll spin your wheels and become discouraged. If you are consistently getting less than 70% correct, move to an easier source, and return to the harder source when your skills improve.
<1200: Chess Tactics for Champions, by Susan Polgar
1200-1600: Winning Chess Exercises for Kids, by Jeff Coakley
1600-2000: Practical Chess Exercises, by Ray Cheng
2000+: Universal Chess Training, by Wojciech Moranda
One thing worth noting: for this type of training, once you’ve mastered the basic tactical patterns, I prefer books that don’t tell you what kind of tactic to expect (i.e., there is not a “pins” chapter). In a game, you will not have anyone to tell you what kind of tactic to look for. That’s why I start with the Polgar book, which gives you a grounding in all the common tactical themes, but then all the subsequent books are “mixed” examples.
Ultimately though, the choice of book is not that important, what’s important is doing the work. It’s not really about the positions, it’s about your thought process. In a game you will not only see perfect examples, you’ll see messy positions with many possibilities. So if you already own a puzzle book, use that. Just get started!
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