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On Chess: Chess Improvement — Proven Training Regimens vs Immersive Learning

Kids enjoying a game of chess in front of the St. Louis Chess Club during the 2019 Sinquefield Cup
Lennart Ootes | St. Louis Chess Club
Children enjoying a game of chess in front of the St. Louis Chess Club during the 2019 Sinquefield Cup

“What’s the best way for me to improve?”

This simple question, in one form or another, is by far the most common question I’m asked as a teacher at the St. Louis Chess Club. The best answer that I have found is borrowed from language learning. As with languages, the best way to learn chess is to immerse yourself in it. Unfortunately, this takes time and patience, and often leaves aspiring players dissatisfied with the lack of something tangible to follow. To understand why this is the best method, let’s examine the main alternative — a strict training regimen.

The best example of this may be Rapid Chess Improvement, a now infamous book written in 2002 by Michael de la Maza. In his book, he recommends that the aspiring tournament player solve the same 1,000 puzzles seven times over. His program was lent credibility by the fact that he rapidly improved to the expert rating using this system. While this much is advertised on the book cover, it likely leaves out that he hasn’t played a rated chess game since reaching the expert rating in 2001. Perhaps his own program, appropriately nicknamed the Seven Circles, played a role in his sudden chess retirement.

Many chess players (myself included, at one point in time) hope to find a detailed, proven training program that can guarantee fast improvement. However, the hard truth is that these programs very rarely work. For the majority, the gains are offset by a burnout that can even be the permanent end to a chess career.

Returning to learning a language, approaches like the one suggested by de la Maza are akin to arduous memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules from a textbook. It would certainly improve your language skills to some extent, but critical facets of the language and culture would still be missing. Conversely, immersing yourself in the culture, people, food, history, and everything else that surrounds a language gives a more holistic understanding to the learner. This holistic understanding is equally important in chess, and the same immersive approach is the way to attain it.

The next logical question is how to go about immersing yourself in chess. The time honored method of heading down to the local chess club to socialize and learn is still a fantastic way to surround yourself in the game. Those who live near St. Louis have more resources than most with the Chess Club. Fortunately for people who are further away from a chess community, the internet has proven to be an invaluable tool.

One can learn plenty of chess history by watching any given Yasser Seirawan lecture. The current top players are incredibly easy to follow, and every major tournament is accompanied by numerous commentators (some have even begun creating their own content such as Hikaru Nakamura on his twitch channel). Training tools are available for study on tactics, endgames, strategy, openings and nearly anything else conceivable. Finding other players to study and play with has also become available to everyone. Online leagues like lichess.org’s “4545” league bring teams of players together to compete. Personally, I have made friends via internet chess, and they have been critical to my chess improvement — offering advice, analysis, and training partners.

Overall, the most critical part of chess improvement is the continued desire and drive to play the game. Immersing myself in chess has brought benefits I couldn’t imagine both inside and outside the game itself. I encourage any aspiring players to back away from horrible self-imposed training programs and adopt this more effective, fun, and rewarding approach instead.

Caleb Denby is a national master from the St. Louis area. He grew up playing chess at the St. Louis Chess Club where he also currently works as a Senior Chess Associate.

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