26 January 2015

Chess Improvement Programs: Directed vs. Eclectic

Although people's learning styles vary significantly - meaning that there is no "one true path" to mastery that will apply to everyone for any skill - it seems obvious that possessing some type of chess improvement program is important for eventual success in gaining playing strength.  ("Do study techniques matter in chess?" previously addressed this idea in a broader sense, as did "Reflections on Training".)

Having a program - in other words, a structured approach to training that contains achievable goals - makes it much more likely that you will in fact stay on your chosen path, rather than simply studying on a whim at random times.  "Whimsical" training can be done for fun and in some cases may make for a useful intellectual break from other tasks, but it is unlikely to produce significant results over time.

That leads to the question of how to construct a training program.  Here I would like to highlight some different types of resources available that are aimed at adult chess improvers, though they also could apply to up-and-coming juniors.  I break them down generally into "directed" programs, which are intended to be all-inclusive from a single source, and "eclectic" ones, which rely on independently gathering together chess resources.  Directed programs are by nature more highly structured (and demanding), which has its pluses and minuses.  I'll also discuss my own eclectic program as an example of that type.

Directed programs

A directed program, whether with a personal chess coach or following a set lesson plan and materials, is explicitly designed to achieve a set level of skill mastery.  We are all familiar with the "directed" educational programs involved in secondary education (typically through age 18), which aim (with varying results) to provide all students with a grasp of mathematics, science, literature, reading/writing, arts, etc.  The time commitment and need to follow a set plan week after week are what sets these programs apart - and make them more challenging to keep up with.
  • The most recent example of a full, amateur-to-master improvement course is that offered by Chess.com University through their "Prodigy Program".  Despite the name, it is open to adult students and the motto is "Master chess at any age, within 5 years".  Core features include: 7-page PDF weekly study plans; monthly online correspondence tournament; monthly master-level simul; and analysis of students' games.
  • The International Chess School's "Grandmaster Package" has been available for several years now, delivered online with PDF workbooks and video lessons; samples are available at the linked website.  An unofficial forum about the course was set up by former blogger Blue Devil Knight, although it is only active periodically.
  • Another example of a "comprehensive" packaged program is at GM Igor Smirnov's "Remote Chess Academy" which features his "Self-Taught Grandmaster" software along with some more specialized packages on openings and subjects like "How to Beat Titled Players".
  • Tiger Chess by GM Nigel Davies uses a subscription model, with currently 160 weekly lessons available, a monthly clinic with GM Davies, access to resources on openings, and guidance on outside books and internet resources.  A reduced membership level offers some introductory video courses.  A "Chess Improver" blog post talks more about the breakdown of time for various study topics.
  • The granddaddy of comprehensive courses, before online versions existed, was GM Lev Alburt's Comprehensive Chess Course.  Its series of instructional books is not fully integrated, but does run from beginner to advanced material and covers openings, tactics, middlegame strategy, and endings.
  • The modern version of beginner to master chess books is the three-set, nine-volume series by GM Artur Yusupov, under the set titles "Build Up Your Chess", "Boost Your Chess" and "Chess Evolution".  In this case, he breaks up the different topics (calculation, tactics, strategy, positional play, endgame, openings) by strength levels, so each of the three book sets is designed to be comprehensive for its particular level.
Eclectic programs

The line between "directed" and "eclectic" is not necessarily a hard one.  For example, if you follow Yusupov's book series in order, that is certainly structured learning, but not quite at the same level as receiving weekly lessons and exercises to complete.  Eclectic programs by nature rely on your interests and choices to drive the improvement process, which may be more fun and better match your own desires and personality.  The downside is that you will need to put more effort into determining what to study and in evaluating materials beforehand, rather than having it packaged up for you.

"Eclectic" does not necessarily mean disorganized.  Here are some resources designed to help the chess improver get organized for training:
  • IM Igor Khemeltsky's Chess Exam and Training Guide is a book for those looking to diagnose their strengths and weaknesses and receive follow-up guidance, this may be a good place to start.  He also offers an exam book on tactics.
  • Chess.com has "study plans" available on the site which link in an organized way to articles and videos available there.  Chess Mentor courses contain everything from basic tactics to advanced endgames, while the Study Plan Directory provides comprehensive links for training from beginners to intermediate (Class B) level.  EDIT: There are now also "advanced" (1800-2000) and "master path" (2000-2200) level study plans listed.
  • Chess Training for Budding Champions by Jesper Hall, despite the title, is a rather advanced book on training designed for the ambitious amateur.  It does well in providing concrete ideas for setting up training programs, illustrates topics well with annotated games, and was the primary inspiration for my own focus on analyzing your own games.
  • More recently, Axel Smith's Pump Up Your Rating is another good single-volume work, with perhaps more focus on teaching the concepts rather than illustrating them, yet with training in mind.  I believe it's worth quoting an excerpt from the introduction, which echoes some of the themes I've addressed in this blog:
"[Serious chess training] can be summarized in five words: active learning through structured training...The four pillars of chess training described in this book, in decreasing order of importance, are:
  •  The List of Mistakes - analyzing your own games and categorizing the mistakes.
  • The Woodpecker Method - learning the tactical motifs and solving simple exercises to internalize them into your intuition.
  • Openings - studying them in such a way that you also learn middlegame positions and standard moves.
  • Theoretical Endgames - studying them only once."
My own eclectic program has a better chance of being followed this year, as I expect to have more time to concentrate on my chess.  What I would like to do is come up with a rotating list of chess resources (books, DVDs, significant videos/articles, etc.) that I complete fully before re-populating the list.  The list should be broad and contain opening, middle and endgame works, along with other general improvement topics.  Regular tournament-level play (online and OTB) and game analysis (both my own and master-level commentaries) will continue in parallel, along with tactics training via Chess.com's Tactics Trainer and the Chess Tactics Server.  I'll put up the next list once I have it together, as reference and to keep me honest by having a public goal.

No quick fix

Any improvement program requires significant time, dedicated effort and serious study.  The chess world is blessed with a large volume of books, software programs and online resources that allow us to make progress; in the end, however, it's up to us to do the necessary work (and play).  I would like to finish with the following quote from Grandmaster Versus Amateur, however, which gives a useful perspective:
"One happy aspect of being an amateur is that one can remain focused on the artistic side of the game, by not being in a permanent rush to win prizes and rating points."
So let's keep in mind the positives about being amateurs!


  1. Question, have you recieved any honest person to person endorsements of a directed system?

    I think, it is very difficult to properly fine tune an 'eclectic system'- to rigourously work through your weaknesses. on the other hand, I'm a horrible cynic of "directed programs"! and I note that generally speaking you will have to spend a relatively large amount of money on them.

    on the other hand, if money is really not a big deal, the third way, surely is the best. if you have money to put to coaching and can get one that you find inspirational and insightful. really there is no comparison. I think.

    but I am interested. from anyone in the blogosphere if they have gone for one of the directed programs and can directly report on what the major differences are between that and puttting your program together.

    1. I didn't endorse any of the programs, due to the fact I haven't had any personal experience with them. If you look at the unofficial ICS forums (linked above), they provide a good sense of a number of people's experiences with the program, which have been generally positive. The Chess.com Prodigy Program just started, so not much available yet on it in terms of feedback. Yusupov's book series has received favorable reviews, although I don't know of anyone who has actually gone through all of it as an amateur.

      I'd also welcome people's thoughts on their experiences with any of the resources I've listed, or with other comprehensive programs/training systems that they've used.

  2. actually, I have myself, built my training program out of an entirely different set of books and resources.

    I find it interesting that you have not gravitated towards either Jeremy silman or Dan heisman's prolific writings in your training program.

    they pair of prolific authors make an interesting contrast. on the whole I find Heisman much more accessable- but in regards to looking at a book, or series of books that purport to comprehensably cover chess- heisman doesn't even try.

    I have silman's Reasses your chess, the Amateurs mind and this Endgame tome as well. of the three- I can'ts stand Reasses your chess- perhaps I'm not ready for it- or perhaps it just doens't speak to me. but he throws out a few sweeping generalizations and I'm not really able make the leap to concrete analysis/ assessment.
    on the other hand, I heartily endorse, amateur's mind. some might find the tone biting. but I like annotations that call out how bad amateur play really is; at least with that silman product. its very concrete. I think its goes well, with a heiman, book , " the most instructive amateur game book".
    silmans' endgame book is actually, the most accessable endgame book I have, deliberately sorting between the more and the less useful.

    regarding heisman, I've never seen heisman writing I haven't loved. he's very accessable. but mileage will vary. sometimes the point he wants to make is smaller. there are books of his I've not seen; but I can also vouch for "looking for trouble" and absolutely anything you can find of novice nook, outside the chesscafe paywall.

    on the whole I think its far more important about what you DO rather than what resources you have. but eclectic or not; there seems to be a few basic pillars of chess improvement stand upon. you will need some resources to do the job. I think it MIGHT be possible to have a program with very little resources espacially without a coach. on the other hand, if there isn't the coach. perhaps it really is better having a lot of resources. I've noticed some speak to me better at one time or another.

    so, in the end, prolly the only approach I won't endorse and I don't think works is to be a bunch of opening books. some are better than others, but most teach a very little amount of chess. I also would warn others not to be too distracted by the wide diversity of books. on the other hand, if you can slowly reach out and look through a lot of stuff; this could be instructive. I've even run into resources; that were never made into a book and offered free on the internet.

    ... I can't recall who writes it; but a free ebook called "phase two"- written originally for talented scholastic players is a fantastic, instructive book that could be an entire chess improvement system by itself. After several weeks of study- i'm now mostly reviewing the endgame portions of it. which you might call the essence of the "eclectic system" of chess improvement. Stumble onto something great and review periodically the highlights until you have absorbed it.

    1. I have several of Silman's books and read a large number of Heisman's Novice Nook articles on Chess Cafe (before the paywall). I think they are two authors that definitely have a place in any "eclectic" program. Neither of them has would I would consider a directed, comprehensive training program as a product, although they both have excellent broad/general-level middlegame books aimed at improving your game. I have Amateur's Mind, which I found quite instructive, as well as Reassess Your Chess, which I expect to add to my list in the future.

  3. Want to highlight that the "Pawn to Rook 4" blog author is now doing the Yusupov book series: http://p-r4.blogspot.com/2015/02/yusupov-fundamentals-week-1.html

  4. this one (http://chess-steps.com/) might fall under the 'directed' column. I thought about using this one in teaching my son.

  5. Thanks for this summary. The programs are not the same for everyone. What works for one player will not work for the other. Which level ? How old ? How many hours each day ? Dan Heisman' Novice Nooks were a great thing for me, and his book is like a "coaching book".
    Studying tactics (and tactics, and tactics...) seems to be a fashion method today, Tikkanen, de la Maza
    It's like cardio training for sportmen.
    analyzing a position seems to be very useful too, because you do not have any tactic each move.
    And ending theory: pawns endings, pawns an rook endings, and so on.
    Finally : detecting our errors is important too. why didn't i see this skewer that would have allowed me to win a knight ?? Why did I lose my bishop ? Why ?
    And last but not the least : how many hours each day. 100 puzzles each day (one hour. Less ?), endings exerices, analyzing games, reading Grandmaster games, playing (against friends, computers, tournament...).


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