24 December 2012

Analyzing your own games is more than just analyzing your own games

Game analysis is one of those areas which seems to be an obvious necessity for an improving player.  Yet, there is a fair amount of conflicting advice in the chess community on the topic.  Here I want to cut through this and present a practical guide to the benefits of analyzing your own games.  In fact, one can make a strong argument for making this the guiding principle behind your chess study process.

I credit IM Jesper Hall's Chess Training for Budding Champions (Gambit, 2001) for bringing this idea to my attention in a focused, meaningful way.  After a short introductory chapter, the book's second chapter - "I Am Lucky to Have Made So Many Mistakes" - makes the point (based on a short anecdote about a visit to IM Johan Hellsten) that "in your own games, you have all that you need to train with."  The author's reformulation of this is in the first section, entitled "In Your Own Games, There is Everything You Need to Improve."  Why is that?
When you think about analysing your own games, it becomes clear how logical it is that this is the most important and natural way of training.  You are personally involved, you have a deep understanding of the position as you have played the game yourself...This gives depth, but also an insight in to the process of thinking during the playing situation.  That insight is impossible to obtain when you study games by other players.  I therefore recommend that you try to describe, with words, how you thought during the game, mixed with more objective analysis.  Then it will be easier to see what you misjudged during the game.  This is a perfect ground for your training as all aspects of chess are included, even your weaknesses.  With the games as a starting point, you can plan your training and add the knowledge that you lack.
In the same vein, here's a relevant quote from GM Alex Yermolinsky's The Road To Chess Improvement (Gambit 1999), an excellent book which I think I should read again, now that my own chess philosophy and practice has changed considerably.
The problem I had to acknowledge was the stagnation of my development.  I was simply going nowhere.  It's not that I lacked experience - I was 28 years old then, and I had been playing chess for some 20 years up to that point - it was a rather sad realization that my game was not improving.  In search for inspiration I decided to follow the most common advice one can find in the works of Alekhine (my favorite player) and Botvinnik (one of my least favorite ones) which can be put into simple words - study your games.  Ever since, every game I played has been extensively annotated.
Did I follow this excellent advice after first reading these books?  I did not.  Like many chessplayers, I preferred to look for easier ways to improve my chess knowledge than working through my games, many of which were painful losses.  Also, it seemed to me that analyzing my own games would be highly inferior to looking at master-level games, or following master-level advice.

This idea - that your games are of low quality and not worth studying - is one of the main objections or criticisms of the self-analysis process.  However, it ignores the one thing in common for all improving players: you have to do the work and you will be the one sitting down at the chessboard your next game - not someone else.  There are a number of implications to this.
  • In the opening, your understanding of its key positional features - including tactical possibilities - is what will get you to a good middlegame position, regardless of whether your opponent follows your "book" lines.
  • In the middlegame, your thinking process and ability to evaluate different candidate moves, along with spotting opportunities and threats, is what will determine your quality of play.
  • In different types of endgames, recognition of the relevant strategic concepts and positional evaluations will allow you to win (or avoid losing).
In Game Analysis for Improvement in Play I described the practical methods I use for analyzing and annotating a game in approximately two hours.  From a conceptual standpoint, I think the main points to get out of analyzing a game are:
The key point in all of this is that you are the one who has to make all the decisions at the chessboard from move 1.  You have to put it all together and understand what is in front of you.  The best guide to how you will play in the future is therefore how you have played in the past.  For improving players, it comes down to the simple fact that if you can't fix your own mistakes or recognize important gaps in your knowledge, you will not get any better.  No one can be perfect, but recognizing the truth about our own play, however painful it may be, is the first step on the road to improvement (as Yermolinsky noted).  Perhaps the most important realization I have had as part of the game analysis process is that I had failed to use a coherent thinking process in my tournament games.  This realization then resulted in the Simplified Thought Process (That Works).

Analyzing your own games also offers a near-infinite number of ways to improve your chess.  With a database program (free or otherwise), you can explore and analyze how other games in your chosen openings have turned out, focusing on key variations and decision points, and identify model master-level games for further study.  With a chessplaying program, you can take key middlegame and endgame positions that you've identified in your analysis and play them out.  If you've determined that you lack some specific knowledge that is holding you back from better results, you can find books, videos or other tools to address that.  Naturally, this is where chess trainers can come into the picture as well; good ones will look to use your own games as a guide for your training.  In any event, let your own games be the practical guide to what you need to accomplish most.

Below are some resources (some of which have been cited above) for those looking for methods or examples of how analyzing your games can be beneficial.  If anyone has had particularly good (or bad) experiences with other resources, comments are welcome.

This blog:
Other sites:
  • Study Your Games by GM Nigel Davies at chessville.com
  • 10 Tips for Analysing Your Chess Games at roman-chess
  • Professional players may offer services that involve analyzing and reviewing your games.  Ones I have run across references to include GM Nigel Davies and IM Yelena Dembo, although there are many others out there.
  • Over at chess.com there's a new series of videos being made by IM David Pruess on "How to Analyze Your Own Games" - so far it's up to an intermediate-level introduction.  It's behind the paywall, though, so you will need to be a subscriber to watch more than the first two minutes.


  1. Super good post Admin. I think studying our own games (especially losses) is the best way to improve myself. Just think about it, as I'm reading say Panfolfini's Endgame Course I'm reading a lot of crap that I already know which makes my time rather wasted, same if I read something way over my head and I can't apply it to my games. This kind of studying seems stupid. HOWEVER, if I play a game and look it over I can hone in where I had no clue what was going on and make sense of it much easier since I played it myself than a John Watson explanation is gonna give me in his book. I don't have to critique every little move, but if I can focus on where I lost the thread and any tactical errors missed I think I can come away with at least something to apply in future games.

  2. I have started my chess training blog at http://hardroadtochessmastery.blogspot.in/ and have added a link to your blog. Hope you dont mind. Thanks. Your suggestions will always be welcome!

  3. Thanks for the comments guys.

    While my losses and mistakes are sometimes painful to see, it helps salve the hurt when I get some good analysis out of them.

    Good luck with your training, Wanderer!


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