The real intention of this wall of text (warning) is a summary of what obstacles I faced when trying to improve. It might help any coach, trainer or writer to get some ideas and re-evaluate own articles. Hopefully. To the rest, have fun.
Around mid-November 2014 I stumbled upon a topic about the ongoing battle between Carlsen and Anand over at bw.de. Since I had a lot of free time from work and university (as used to be the case rather often), I started to watch the stream and was immediately hooked. The commentary provided by some American FM or IM was quite entertaining. A few days later, no correlation here, a friend of mine told me to stop highlighting him in IRC, as he was playing chess himself. That was when it really started for me, as I observed him playing with five minute time control on chess.com. It blew my mind how much more thrilling this old game was once time was introduced as limited factor. I knew chess, the rules and had some very crude ideas how you could play it. But that was a different level entirely. I started thinking I could learn some more about that game. Just to fight boredom. And that's where I started out, around early December 2014.
I don't know when or who explained chess to me, I guess it doesn't matter. At one point in my childhood I ended up having a very cheap chess computer, one of those using Kasparov's name to sell. It wasn't really good, but good enough to beat a elementary school kid. I never really tried to defeat the AI, I was more interested in testing its limits, especially since the whole Kasparov vs. Engine debate was somewhat present in the media. For that purpose I used to facilitate a competition between the computer and a game for my C64. The old machine used to win. Even in later years I used to test the C64 against newer free-ware chess games for the 384, Pentium and whatnot. Interestingly enough, the C64 could take on a lot of engines from newer generations, despite its limitations.
Only in highschool I started to play against humans – every once in a blue moon. None of them knew more than me, not that I had any idea what I was doing. All I did, usually, was trying to re-create „positions“ (that's stretching the word) the engines often engaged in. I had very vague ideas that you could fork with a knight or pin pieces with a bishop, but not really.
A few years later, around 2006, I was a really bad student. I used to skip classes and instead learn on my own for the finals in a café. A very prominent thing among my friends, teachers couldn't really do much to force attendance on 18 year olds and frankly, they didn't care if you're grades were stable. In between learning two of my friends and me started playing again. This time the level was 'higher', as we tried to improve somewhat, spend more thought and whatnot. Yet, without time, without one of us ever having opened a chess book. My only „training“ used to be reading some news paper available in the café, which published chess tactic riddles (and scrabble boards) every day. I tried to solve them, but eventually lost interest after two months or so. Yet, at least temporarily, my competitive drive was big enough to seek out the old chess computer I had. I sat down, on the floor, and tried to beat it. It wasn't a good opponent, I won two out of three games, the third a tie. During the forth game my dog challenged the computer, he was very fond of a black knight and a pawn.
All in all, I guess I played about three, maybe fourhundred games and solved about 50 tactic riddles. And that's a very optimistic estimation of my knowledge.
In December I started playing, mostly 10/0 and rarely 15/10. I just opened with 'what felt right' playing mostly on chess.com, the occasional Facebook games included. I'd do the chess.com free tactical puzzles daily and randomly visited other pages, rarely for more than twenty minutes though. Around early February my interest slowed down, as well as my spare time. By then I was an average 950 Elo player on chess.com, tendency towards 1000 was definitely there. Interestingly enough, I mostly dropped points against weaker players while playing strong(er) against significantly higher ranked people.
Until summer 2015 other things were on my mind and I mostly used Facebook to play, whenever I felt like it. I made a habit of playing one or two games per week there, mostly during breaks from montonous work. Another streak of mass gaming occured during Christmas time and new year. I also tried to read up on several basics, both via books and the Chess Academy programme. It worked so-so, I was able to constantly hold 1050 Elo points on chess.com, but didn't advance much further. According to stats, I played around 500 games by then. Again, I somewhat stopped playing around January.
Only in last October I felt like playing again, given that the past year was shit real life wise, I'd been rather busy and wouldn't want to concentrate on anything but my final thesis, and even that wasn't an easy task. However, once I had to rely on USB-Satellite-WiFi-Bullcrap, I went back to chess. It was so-so, apparently, without doing anything, I started to play slightly better. I focussed a lot on several other pdf files I 'totally legally' obtained online, as well as on tactic puzzles. It was the only thing to do besides writing the odd article, if you have no TV, radio, books and a max speed of 30 kb/s. Again, that ended around Christmas, as I found more things to work on and moved in with my parents... again.
And here we are, two weeks ago I moved out and into a new place. Where I had to rely on shared WiFi with slightly odd connections. I started to REALLY mass play and I'm still finding it a lot of fun, though it's mentally draining to grind chess compared to any other game I tried out thus far. I mostly stick to lichess, it's nice, it offers tons of other chess modes, it has free tactics, analytics software and so on. Chess.com on the other hand banned two of my accs for 'intentionally discing' – thanks USB net. It's true, about 30% of my games ended it in discs. But not mercy there.
To sum it up, I played about ~1500 games so far, spread across Facebook, Lichess and chess.com. After two(!) games on chess.com I'm somewhere around 1200 Elo points or something, 1500 Glicko2 points for Blitz (3/0 to 7/0) and ~1650 for classical (afaik up to 90/0) on Lichess. Facebook is a joke, I have some shit points there with a winrate of about 70%.
The Learning Experience – Evaluation of My Own Skill
At first I didn't really expect anything from chess, and to be honest, I still don't. I can not put it in words how refreshing it is to simply have fun playing a game. If I were to take it nearly as serious as I do pool or what I did with Brood War, it'd been a lot more frustrating. There were points in which I actually trained several highly specific aspects without having the feeling of training at all, probably because I wasn't aware it could help me in any way or maybe, because it really wasn't my goal to improve.
All in all, I'd say, as far as online(!) games go, I'm somewhat of a D to D+ ranked player in chess, if I had to put it into ICCup ranking terms. I guess I started out as higher D- player in 2014, as I really didn't need to read up things from scratch. I knew how the board was supposed to be build, how pieces can move and all that. However, I had no idea of the ordinary newb-opening rules, such as 'try to develope one piece each turn'.
For now I know some more basic principles, much thanks to my IRC-trainer. Other than that, I still feel pretty lost when it comes to the middle and late game stages. Especially end games are really hard for me to determine, I regularly screw up, either because I feel the clock is running out (when it isn't), or because I have no idea how to play out a pawn advantage I built earlier.
Basics and Puzzles
Since I started out as casual and newb in chess, I couldn't help but wonder how frustrating my own strategy articles must have been for Brood War newbs. Obviously, you can't really compare chess, a turn based game, to the RTS legend. Then again...
At first, around December 2014, I felt lost, because there simply was way too much to read if you wanted to. Thanks to the advice of my friend, I started to read the German book „Zug um Zug“ which was supposed to cover the basics. It really does, it assumes you have no idea about chess at all. That being said, you can about skip 100 of 250 pages right off the bat. You know that a bishop can only move on diagonals, no need to explain that. Also, the next 50 pages, basic mating patterns, are a given as well. Any kid will naturally discover how to checkmate a king with two rooks up. That's not teaching you anything. Only the last 50 pages or so were really helpful, as they introduced the aforementioned rule of opening basics. This alone helped me to advance a lot.
Almost all other sources, be it literature or youtube commentary, had similar problems. 80% of the content is utterly useless. It repeats what you learn within a few days if you set your mind to it. I realise I still violate some of the basic rules, but I already know them. Just opening „according to rules“ doesn't help me with middle- and late game problems. Be that as it may.
There were also tons of tactic puzzles you could solve. The ones posed by chess.com are laughable at best, no idea of how they are now. They're either way too easy or way too hard, given that time plays a role here. The higher your chess.com tactics rating, the harder the time punishment is. If you solve a problem within a minute, you might still lose points. Pages like chesstempo.com are ten times better and more challenging. Spending time there improves your eye for potential moves. I can't stress out how great this page was, if it was only to waste some spare time and to fight boredom.
However, the real use of tactics for me was limited. It was all nice and well, but I felt as if I learned to judge a given chess board by potential scenarios. I wouldn't look at 'the general picture', more like looking for some clues. If you do a lot of puzzles, you realise that sooner or later you cycle through some scheme, e.g.:
- Look out for potential mating nets
- Look for pinned pieces
- Look for potential forks
- Look to force a promoted pawn
That's all fair and well, but the big problem for me was, that this was too abstract. In a real game it didn't neccessarily help me to find these tactics. Overall, obviously, it improved, but I'm not convinced it was entirely due to me doing puzzles. A game evolves, is a living organism, not much like solving puzzles.
All in all, these puzzles somewhat remind me of micro maps in Brood War. Players used to play them all the time, especially newb Zerg focussed so hard on them. Because, you know, Muta micro. However, in a real game they couldn't do much to prevent getting raped by Terran. I still don't know if this helps a total beginner, not even sure how advanced you have to be to really gain something here. Lucky for me, I never really recommended these kind of maps. I think. I hope not.
So my personal advice to beginners would be: Do them occasionally but don't trust them at all. Reality will punish you for overestimating your alleged skill. Tactics or Micro Maps won't make you better at all. If you can't use them when push comes to shove, you're screwed.
Openings, Part I
The only real issue of chess which can be compared to RTS are openings. Openings in chess are what Build Orders are in Brood War. And here's the problem for writers and players alike – these are what make both games real interesting, as they're, at least in my naive opinion, the fundamental for any game. However, the similarity is striking: Even when you know what you open with, you can't know all potentail outcomes and variations for each decision you ever did. On paper it's theoretically possible for chess, as there's no mechanical part involved, yet... it's not. Mathematics do not reflect reality at all. [all right I have to giggle a little thinking of Naruto, who spend hours to convince the bw.de forum BW/SCII is more complex than reality. Disregard this train of thought though]
Back to the openings. At one point I read in the „Zug um Zug“ book what general openings should do – improve your position and open possible advantages. That's so absurdly generalising that it doesn't help much. You have an idea what to do in your first eight to ten moves, afterwards you're left alone to die. To be fair, the book helped you by showing three or four games, of „how openings can be good“ - and by that I mean it went for like 20 turns but didn't show the end. The author actually assumes a moron like me could see that this is a guaranteed winner. Actually I could imagine, but couldn't possibly give an explanation as to why and how the end game was won.
Naturally, since my IRC coach was also busy with real life, I tried to learn myself. Worked for school, worked for university, worked for BW – I'm a loner by nature when it comes to improving. It didn't really work so well for chess. Mainly, because there's not much and you're left with own assumptions.
There are portals like ChessAcademy, which try to go one step further. They'll teach you some ways to break a defended king, castled or not. They'll explain why the squares F2 and F7 are important. And what you could try to do with an isolated pawn. Every of these lectures was helpful, but they shared one big, nasty issue: They sounded great. You could tell that the authors were fascinated by their game and had an amazing amount of knowledge – but problems to communicate their wisdom. That's the problem for so many writers. They understand their stuff, but they can't in-depth explain it. I don't blame them, it's probably the hardest part of coaching, getting the message across. Anyhow, I guess most articles around here are not blatantly bad and all of them at least mean well.
So, by summer 2015 I was left with very basic thoughts and some videos, some puzzles, and that's all. What was a game changer was the book „Chess Fundamentals“ by Capablanca, a former world champion and chess legend. I didn't know who he was, but his style of educational writing was intriguing to say the least. He wasn't so much about „Look. This is a rook. It moves only in a straight line“ - he pretty much said that's things you have to know before opening the book. No more just skipping to page 200!
Instead Capablanca directly focussed on the points of „develope a piece every turn“. He made very abstract and very helpful rules for a lot of potential scenarios. E.g. for end games he suggested which site to attack if only pawns are left., or which pawns you could promote and how your king has to be moved to either force or prevent a stalemate. Futhermore, which tactics could matter in an ordinary mid game, and what moves you can force. And, what was most important, how you could train to see tactics in an ongoing game easily.
It was bloody great. Sadly, it was also short, as it was only meant as an introduction. This was one of the reasons I jumped from ~950 on chess.com to nearly 1100 within a month.
Now for my writing: I couldn't help but pay respect to Capablanca for being so clear and on the point, without glorifying his own game. I don't mean that others were arrogant, it's just that writers tend to drop terms here and there. Then they either, which is bad, over define every aspect, or, which is worse, don't say what they mean at all. I tend to do the first option, as you'll realise when you see the length of this blog.
Furthermore, authors usually stress out very general rules, the easiest ones at that. Obviously, because they are easy. Then again, hands down, you know that even an ebola infected monkey could learn these without any help. All you need are five pages, which we love to stretch to twenty. Probably, at least that's the case for me, it gets harder to phrase helpful advice for complex issues.
Openings – Part II
Around last Christmas, with the advice of Capablanca still in mind, I tried learning more about 'openings'. So I used google, pirated books, youtube tutorials and even Wikipedia to learn more about what I lose the most against. And, again, it wasn't helpful. I'm not sure who these books are supposed to help, I can't think of anyone. A newb is totally overwhelmed, at least I was. A good player can do these evaluations on his own, I guess.
The problem is the same I faced so often in the BW Strategy Forums: It's mostly a list of games. If you search for, let's say, the Sicilian Defense, you'll be drowned in some examplary games. The intro chapter sometimes lists the same basic bullshit you read a hundred times, only to lead you to some generic sentence like „it's good and popular right now, giving black the opportunity to establish an attack“. Then, and that's not overdoing it, it's 200 games of dead, semi-dead and very alive players, with some commentary about chosen moves. Yeah great. To use a metaphor, these books are what live commentary is to Brood War. It's probably there to pay respect and to entertain, but certainly not to educate. If it is, it fails miserable in almost all cases. There might be good books, but if there are, I haven't seen them. Apparently there is no writer catering to players who're stuck in between newb and „knows what he's doing“. Die a newb or an expert, there's no middle ground, because the middle ground left in despair.
To get back on point: In late February of this year I started to play on memchess. Not because I wanted to play chess, I was more like trying to find out how quick I can memorize things. I do that with foreign languages sometimes, so why not with pictures this time? I was told again and again in several tests that my „memory“ is significant above average, so why not put it to a test. I could learn 150 lines of the Sicilian in five hours, so that's thirty lines per hour. I think it's okay, but it's not hard, not to sound arrogant. I was in school so long that storing information became kind of a job. Also, a lot of the lines are very similar, with about 20% being only five moves.
Apparently that helped like shit, especially in Blitz and 10/0. It gives you a huge advantage to simply be able to make up to ten moves in under three seconds. However, the huge downside is, you tend to not punish mistakes. Just yesterday my mad IRC friend, whose name shall not be published unless he says so, was breathing down my neck, crossing his arms, then un-crossing them, grabbing hold of a electro shocker, to calmly shout at me: „You useless pisspot. You had a free pawn in the third move and you kept on blitzing in a 10/0. Haven't you learned anything you sad immitation of human life?“. Well, he's right. But it's fun!
Anyway, to compare it to RTS-articles: It's a lot similar, at least on the supposed great reads. Many of us tend to spam Korean VODs to beginners, lately even beginners ask freely for those. Not to appreciate great play, but to actually copy the styles. It's really, really... naive. I don't know how to phrase it without offending anyone, but a newb can't really handle that kind of stuff. Trying to learn some mechanics and blindly follow a build isn't bad, as long as you don't switch off your brain, like I tend to do for openings in actual games. It happens so often a beginner does something incredibly stupid any good player will immediately kill him for; yet, for some reason, tutorials are often written as if these things don't happen. More so, I think it was ver's guide, suggested to never go free style. But you should. You totally should! If you see an option to punish a mistake, do it. Go for it. That's ten times more helpful as if you didn't.
So this last paragraph goes out to all of those wannabes who lately absolutely want to switch to Brood War, SCII or whatever game to „totally become pro“, because they were „super duper mastersdiamondbronzegrandmaster“ in Game Y. I do get you, I do like that you want to play my game / a game featured on this page. But don't do it to „totally become pro“ and don't, absolutely don't to chase a given goal. Don't aim for „high Masters“, don't aim for „B- within a season“ or whatever you can achieve in MOBA besides not falling asleep on the keyboard. It just hurts. It's the first time I tried to learn a game I had no idea of and where I haven't set a goal for myself. And it's so, so much more fun. There's simply no frustration whatsoever, you can go away and you rarely stress out about your own mistakes. I don't think I'd improved nearly as fast as I did if I would've wanted to score that next 100 Elo point barrier ahead of me.
Futhermore, if you really do want to improve, all the literature and the gaming itself won't be everything you can or should do. What helped me the most, at least recently, is going over my own games. I stuck to some openings and played them over and over again. The game now starts to get somewhat familiar and I at least think I know what's going to be bad – that's already something. However, the games I still lose horribly I look over, so do I everytime my opponent makes a variation to the Sicilian I do not know. Honestly, this is the best advice I can give you so far.
Well, that was a lenghty blog about everything and nothing. I hope you could enjoy that a little. Also, thanks to my IRC friends (who are not unwanted helping to create a CV) for help, AmazingXKCD and Cele for games and to the special Canadian (for reminding me there's always this one bigger idiot around).
Cheers and hugs to everyone :3
P.s.: I once tried to write "a little more like Capablanca". I don't think it went nearly as good as I wanted, but if you're interested, it's here: http://www.teamliquid.net/forum/bw-strategy/450579-other-basics