Chess improvement

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

The juicy prospect of improvement constantly dangles above a chess player. Those morsels of knowledge one has acquired whet the appetite for others which lie just out of reach. Even players at peace with their ambient proficiency can’t help but acknowledge that their better games coexist with lousy ones. Once you admit that, it’s a hop, skip and a jump to the idea that replicating the good games might confer improvement. Unless you have the equanimity of a monk, wanting to play well becomes an unshakeable existential burden.

Many chess books will promise to boost your results at the board. Usually, it is taken for granted that absorbing the book’s insights will generate the desired improvement. Considering the large appetite for instructional material, books which treat improvement as their subject matter, rather than their goal, are rare.

The fact is, chess improvement is a slippery subject. There is no magic formula, but opinions are like — ahem — kings, in that everybody has one. Distilling the wisdom from the dogma is no easy task, setbacks are inevitable, and misdirected effort can be worse than useless. So it was refreshing to see these and other topics discussed thoughtfully and deeply in a new book, Chess Improvement by Barry Hymer and Peter Wells (Crown House Publishing). Hymer is Emeritus Professor of Psychology in Education at the University of Cumbria and a strong amateur player. Wells brings his wide experience as a professional player, trainer, England Olympiad team captain and, until lately, chief mentor of the Chess Trust’s Accelerator Programme for leading English juniors.

Together, they analyse improvement through the prism of ‘Mindset theory’, the framework originally championed by American psychologist Carol Dweck, which has gained traction in education in recent years. At its core, a fruitful ‘growth mindset’ is distinguished from a ‘fixed mindset’ which treats ability as largely innate. Crudely, the tortoise can outrun the preening hare. To make their case, the authors candidly discuss the ways in which their own striving for improvement, and those of many of England’s top players (including me), accord with this model. Perhaps the theory remains contentious, but the authors make a compelling case that it offers abundant insight to a chess player.

This is not a breezy self-help manual. At times, a growth mindset can be brutally difficult to cultivate. Players’ experiences of what works often present contradictions to unpick. The book’s great strength is to deliver its advice (aimed at parents and coaches, as well as players) with caveats and a light touch. In real life, the distinction between fixed and growth mindsets can be blurry, such as in a fascinating account of Matthew Sadler’s deliberate narrowing of his style, which worked as a laser or a blinker on different occasions.

These ideas are backed by a generous helping of pertinent and instructive examples from practical play — a couple are even taken from my own games. Here is a personal favourite from one of Peter’s games which alas, did not appear in the book. White’s creaking position collapses amid a spectacular triple piece sacrifice.

Justin Tan—Peter Wells
Reading 4NCL, 2016

38… Nxd3+! 39 Kd2 39 Bxd3 Nxf3+ is disastrous. Nxe4+! 40 Kxd3 Bxc4+! 41 Kxc4 Qe6+ 42 Kd3 c4+ 43 Kxe4 d5 mate. Exquisite!

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