Chess Speech: Motivation and Making Winning Decisions

9 04 2010

A few weeks ago, I’d TD’d my first event at a local scholastic tournament. Before the start of the first round, I read the followings speech. I think you might enjoy reading it:

Hey guys, most of you probably know me. For those of you who don’t, my name is Daniel Johnston.

A chess tournament; this is a chess tournament. So why do we play chess?

There are many reasons. Perhaps because of the competition, meeting your friends, stuff like that. But the main reason we’re here is to play chess. Why? Because chess is fun.

So what makes chess fun? Yes, there are all the usual suspects. I talked about this on my blog, But what I didn’t say there was the real reason that I like to play chess, and probably for a lot of you, too: Winning. What can possibly be more thrilling than just outwitting your opponent in a match, being congratulated, and feeling great? There’s really just no better feeling.

And we all know how fun winning is. But some of us don’t realize that the conscious choices that we make directly effects whether we win or lose. Some people will argue that discipline is most important, but what makes us discipline is really the most important thing; motivation. Are you motivated enough to make the right decisions; be patient, take your time, develop, castle? Realize that if you abide by rules like those and ones that you hear all the time from coaches that are a lot older than me you will win games.

Recently, I started taking more seriously some of the concepts. They are a cover-up for me until I learn the exact science of chess through studying, but although I may not be playing the best moves, I am playing better than before. Remember that advice from players better than you will make you better in the vast majority of cases.

But above all, have fun! And remember; chess is cool! Thank you.

At a later date, I’ll post a video of me saying the speech and share about my TD experience.


Play to Your Strengths in the Opening, or Play the Best Openings?

2 04 2010

In a recent post about How to Study, I mentioned I thought it was better to play openings reflective on your chess strengths rather than play the best openings out there.

This is a very debatable topic and one that needs some explanation about why I think that.

The reason why I have the opinion that I do is that the opening is not what determines the game. Sure, you can occasionally catch your opponent with a refutation (always play those), but will happen only rarely, and even if you get a good position out of the opening, if you aren’t comfortable with it, then you won’t play well and you’ll lose the game anyways.

The argument (I guess) is that you will get in a bad position if you play an opening that possibly isn’t the best, or that perhaps anyone could play well in a good position.

To deal with the first one, I have to say that I agree completely; with the part about getting a bad position. Only play openings with positions that you feel comfortable playing in. If you play a “bad” opening but get in a position that you like more than in a “good” opening, then the opening is better for you.

The second one is just bogus to me. It seems silly to think that anyone could play well in a “good” position. Only if you’re comfortable with it.

So the best openings for you are the ones which you’re most comfortable playing; that’s what I think, and that’s what I think makes sense. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

How to Study

26 03 2010

A little bit ago, I wrote a post on getting a study schedule. However, just having a book to study and having the time to study isn’t quite enough; you need to know how to study. If you’re doing it wrong, then you’re wasting your time, and I really don’t want that. Each genre has a different method you should you to study, so I’m breaking it up into those sections.


Know that just because I recommend playing the lines of a certain opening or a certain book or DVD about the opening doesn’t mean that you’ll want to actually play it. Every player has different styles. I would recommend using the test that I tell you people to use so often on this site to measure their chess skills: Opening, tactics, positional, calculation, strategy, and endgame. Certain openings require different strengths. For example, the Caro Kann and French are both positional, while the Dragon or Grunfeld is more tactical, calculation, and strategy. I obviously recommend playing to your strengths, and that’s something I’ll talk more about in the future.

I’ll do my best job relaying you the information on what type of play you get from the opening, and hopefully you’ll heed that and only buy things to your strengths. However, if you somehow miss it or are buying it from another recommendation (I’m far from the only reputable source out there), skim through it and check out the positions you’ll get from the opening and if you’re comfortable with them.

Once you’ve got an opening that you want to learn, you now have to memorize it; or at least its ideas. You don’t have to memorize every line, but you should at least memorize the few main ones and some side variations so you’re comfortable with the position.

The main problem that I’ve found is that most of the advice out there is simply not the best possible. So I enter the line into Rybka, analyze it, and if it thinks there’s a better move, then I’ll leave it alone for a while, have it analyze deeply and play some engine matches. I will then study the material Rybka provides, as Rybka is the strongest player in the world and is perfect. You may have to recheck if the lines Rybka provides would still give you a comfortable game. If not, then I’d recommend going back to the original.

I have a photographic memory, so memorization is pretty easy for me, but here’s what I do:

I sit at the board and play through the first two moves of the line off a printed paper. I then set the board back up and try to play them without the paper. I keep doing this every two moves until I’ve memorized the line. Repetition is great for memorization, so I think this is best way.

Finally, load up ChessBase and look at games in each line Grandmasters played. Go over these games on a board, and you should get a good feel for the position.

I redo my openings every sixth months, including starting from scratch with choosing my openings based on my current chess skills (luckily, I usually am able to stick with the same openings).

Middle Game

The middle game is easier to study because the materials out there on it are simply much more comprehensive.

I skim over the book first to see if it’s worth reading. If I decide it is, I go through it very carefully, and take notes on the lessons I learn. I admit this is partly so I have some more guidance for when I write my own books (I’m not copying; I add my ideas to those notes), but mainly so I can read my notes instead of all that conversational talk and blah! in the book.

If it’s a really good book (and I’ve only done this with a few), I label it in my “classics” shelf, and every sixth months, I take it out and read through it again. I put the books which I won’t be looking at again into my chess collection, though I do go through the notes periodically, because I only take notes on things which will help. The books that are really good, though, I will read them again, every six months.


For the endgame, I simply study two books every sixth months, Silman’s Endgame Course and the Dvortsky book or however you spell it (I don’t have it with me). I’ll tell you how to use those when I review them.

Begin Already!

So I’ve told you why you should study, how I study, how to set your study goals, and now I’ve told you how to study. Not only that, but I’ve given you some book reviews of books that I’ve read. Now you don’t have any excuses to go out there and start studying! I give you the best of luck.

Book Review: The Best Chess Book in a Long Time: You vs. Fischer

17 03 2010

It has been said there are more books written about chess than all the other games in the world combined. I’ve heard before that there are over a billion chess books out there on the market right now. A simple Amazon search reveals it’s definitely in the 100 millions.

With all of this clutter, it’s a tough decision to decide what books to buy—especially in this economy. So we go on the search for “classics.” That’s why most of the current books are overlooked; the mass publishing is just too much. And instant classics are very rare.

However, I’ve found a gem; a book that is undoubtedly one of the best books to come out in years.

1900 to 2350

When I first started that book You vs. Fischer, the first fifth of the book pegged at a rating of around 1900 USCF.

My average performance rating after that was 2350.

I’m not saying that this book alone was accountable for so big an increase; I probably wasn’t in the groove the first part of the book, and I was in a slump when I first started that I broke out of (I think due in large part to reading the book).

However, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the book improved my skills by at least 300 points. Just from a week or two, that’s more than most people gain in five years.

What’s the Deal with You vs. Fischer?

With all the chess books out, it is hard pressed these days to write a book completely different from all the others. However, that’s exactly what author IM Igor Khmelnitsky did with You vs. Fischer.

Inside the book, there are a total of sixty games, broken into five twelve game matches where you take the place of an opponent of possibly the greatest player of all time, Bobby Fischer, who requires no introduction.

You get a position, and you’re asked how you evaluate it. After answering that, you get four moves to choose from as the best move. You may want to change your answer to the first question after the second, and in fact I choose the move before making any decision on the position because to know that, you need to know what move is the best move, will be played, and what will happen.

Then you flip the page, and you’re given a score (0-10) on your selection, what result would’ve happened (used to track a match with Fischer and who would win the page), and analysis on each of the moves. The games are purposefully not categorized in order of difficulty or game type, as in a real game, you will never know what to expect.

With most chess books, I get bored after a while and have to take a break. But with this book, I rolled through it very quickly. It’s very enjoyable to play these games, and the time will go by fast.

What’s so Great About the Book?

The reason why this book is so good is because of multiple reasons. First is that you get sixty real game situations where you have to calculate the position and decide what move to make. Practice is some of the best learning, and surely that helps a lot.

Second is the analysis. Khmelnitsky gives his thought process and what he analyzed, so you’re able to correct your thought process, which is very important.

Third is that you get to beat Fischer! What could be a better confidence booster? You’ll probably get at least a draw with him, and if you do well, you should be able to win. The truth is that he made a lot of mistakes, but his opponents were so afraid of him they were afraid to capitalize.

My Chess Book of the Year Pick

I don’t say this lightly, but I strongly support this book as the chess book of the year in 2010.

I realize it came out in November, 2009, but I’m pretty sure it must be entered into 2010, because I read the book that won (Revolutionize Your Chess(fantastic book)), and I don’t think it really compares to You vs. Fischer when you look at the results and the novelty, which I think is more important than a theory on the game.

Highly Recommended

In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, I highly recommend this book to anyone over around 1200, because it is highly instructional, and the content shouldn’t be over many peoples (if anyone’s heads).

The convenience of this book is also amazing. The chess board is right there for you to analyze from, so you don’t need a board. This was extremely useful for me, and I did a lot of the book on the go.
So why don’t you get it?

Monday Match-Up: Cunningham-Johnston

15 03 2010

Today, I’m starting a new series: Monday Match-Up.

There is a league at my local chess center every Monday where teams compete against each other in a ten round tournament. It’s a very friendly tournament, and new teams are drafted each season (winter, spring, summer, and fall). We are obviously currently in the winter league, and there are four boards per team. Because I have gotten to be fairly strong, I am a first board.

I’ll post the game with my analysis on the Monday after the game was originally played. Hopefully by looking at my games, you’ll be able to learn about the game of chess, learn what mistakes we make so you can avoid them, and see what we do to win. These games should be fairly instructive as they are usually played on a relatively high level; probably the average rating of a player on board one is around 1900.

I lost my first five games in the league, but last week, I beat the owner of our chess center, Ron Lohrman. I will post that game, as it is very fascinating.

This week, I faced Sherman Cunningham. Sherman is a strong 1950 player whose recently got into the game. He is very kind, and he playsveryfast. He was even able to play in the Grand Prix tournament going on at the same time and our game. Luckily for him, our game didn’t last very long. I was Black.

1. e4 c5 2. d4

I am not very familiar with this opening, but I managed to figure it out at the board.

2…cxd4 3. c3 Nc6

I didn’t feel comfortable accepting the sacrifice with 3…dxc3. 3…e5, I now realize was the best move, but I didn’t feel comfortable opening up my position like that, either.

chess position sherm 1

4. Nf3 d5 5. exd5 Qxd5 6. Na3

chess position sherm 2

This move threw me a little. I had expected him to capture 6. Nxd4. However, 6. cxd4 was better. Let me show you:

  • 6. cxd4 the best move; 6…Bg4 is bad because of 7. Nc3, so the best continuation is 6… e6 7. Nc3 Qa5 8. Bb5 Bb4 9. 0-0 Bxc3 10. Bxc6+ bxc6 11. bxc3 with an advantage for White.

chess position sherm 3

Black cannot take the pawn with 11…Qxc3, because of 12. Qa4, followed by an attack against White’s king after Bd2, Rac1, and it’s a real mess for Black.

6… Bg4

I was strongly considering playing 6…e5, but decided that just developing and getting ready for a possible attack would be my best option. The computer happens to agree.

7. Nb5?

This was strong in the game, but if I had been a computer, or maybe a Grandmaster, I might have found: 7…0-0-0! Not only will I hold onto my extra pawn after 8. cxd4 e5, but his king is in the center, his queen is in danger, I’m castled, and my development is very good.

Unfortunately, my rating is only 1824, so I played the normal…

7… Rc8

chess position sherm 4

8. Nbxd4 Nf6

Not 8…Nxd4 9. Qxd4 (9. cxd4 e5 with strong play for Black) Qxd4 (if not, White is just ahead, and if 9… Bxf3? 10. Qa4+ Rc6 11. gxf3 and Black can’t capture 11… Qxf3 because of 12. Rg1 followed by Bg2) 10. Nxd4 with a slight advantage for White.

chess position sherm 5

9. Be2

At this point, Sherman offered me a draw. I found this rather strange, because he’s almost 200 points above me. But he said he was tired from playing in the Grand Prix all day. I opted to continue playing, though, because I felt I had an advantage, which was actually true.

9… e6

9…Nxd4 is now the right move because there is no Bg2, so White must capture with the pawn. However, I had something else in mind.

10. 0-0

10. Nxc6 gets White a clear advantage, but Sherman didn’t want to simplify so early.

chess position sherm 6

10…Bd6 11. Be3 Qh5

I am now aware this was not the best move, and actually a mistake. However, I still would see this as very instructive, as the defense is not likely to be found in practice, and going with your gut in an attack is one of the best things you can do.

chess position sherm 7

12. h3

Sherman has a win after this move still; with perfect play. However, this play can be expected only from Grandmasters. What he should have done was 12. Nxe6! a devastating counter-punch. I am just lost after that. Again, though, really, would you expect someone of 2000 strength to find this in a game?

chess position sherm 8

12… Bxh3

Sherman’s next move puts him in a bind. However, he still could’ve won via 13. Nb5, completely ignoring my bishop, and then taking. Black’s attack is then just not strong enough.

13. gxh3 Qxh3 14. Nxc6 Rxc6

chess position sherm 9

Qg4+, the best move, forcing draw via perpetual, is out of the question for me in this position 15. Bb5 Now Sherman is losing. He should have instead brought his queen out to a4, and then swung it to h4 to defend the king-side. 15… Nd5 Qg4+ followed by Qh5+ and Qxb5 wins the game for me, but I was thinking of a plan, and my mind wasn’t really open to new ideas. That’s a weakness, and one that I will have to get corrected.

chess position sherm 10

16. Bxc6+ bxc6 17. Re1 g5 this maneuver is the mastermind move behind my entire plan. Only a counterattack by Qa4 can stop it, and Qa4 looks very dicey; too complicated to go in for most.

chess position sherm 11

18. c4?? Sherman admitted later that he hadn’t seen my next move. He said he thought it would be a long game, and then he looked at the board, and he saw it was over! Funny that the move I played, 18… g4 is actually losing after 19. Ng5! However, this is a very remote move, one that only a player of much higher merit would find in most cases. I should have played 18…Nf4, opening the g-file, and checkmating in just a move or two.19. cxd5?? gxf3 0-1

chess position sherm 12


There are a few lessons from that game. Let’s look at them:


  • Look Out for Hidden Resources and Counter-Attacks

I won this game not because I attacked particularly well, but Sherman failed to counter-attack properly. Had he done so, he would’ve won easily. I should have been more careful. I will be sure in my next encounters to survey the board more carefully before making a move.

  • Trust Your Gut

My gut told me to attack, so I did, and I won. I shouldn’t have won, but I think it’s a lesson that if your gut tells you to do something, you should definitely take it very seriously, and probably play it.

  • King Safety

The reason White had so many counter-attacks was because my king was still rooted in the center. My reason for not castling was because it would ruin my attack, but I should have been more careful in looking for possible ways White could counter-attack against my king, and see that my attack would fail because of it. I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times, but king safety is one of, if not the biggest priority.


  • Openings Matter!

I had many chances to go into a good opening. I had an excuse because the opening he played is relatively uncommon, but the Sicilian is verycommon, and he should have known the theory better on the line he was playing; if he had, he wouldn’t be at risk for me taking equality.

  • Counter-Attack!

One of the best ways to play defense is to play offense. Sherman neither defended nor attacked, really, but if he had counter-attacked, I would’ve been crushed!

So that’s it for the first week in the Monday Match-Up series. Tell me what you thought of the game in the comments section.

My Chess Studying Schedule

6 03 2010

As someone who has gone up very rabidly, many people ask me: Do I study, and if so, how much?

Of course, I study; if I didn’t, I can only imagine how low I would be. As my ambition for chess has grown, so has the amount of time I study. It depends on the player and their personal goals (for example, my goal to become World Champion is most likely higher than your goals). Tomorrow, I’ll tell you more about studying.

Here is my current study schedule:

  • Monday: Two Hours of Openings

These days, openings are crucial to know. I get my main opening studying out of the way early on Monday morning before school. Because I have a Monday night game every week, I often work on the opening that I expect to happen.

  • Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday: An Hour and a Half of Tactics/Strategy/Position

These factors are definitely the most important in chess game, as virtually nothing can be done without them. I study these the most.

  • Friday: An Hour of Theory

What I mean by this is what chess is and what determines wins and losses. Revolutionize Your Chess is a prime example.

  • Saturday: Two Hours of End-Games

If both players play correctly, an endgame will often result. End-games are very important, and I set aside two hours a week to freshen up on the many, many end-games.

  • Sunday: Free Day

On Sunday, I don’t do anything particular; just anything that I want. Sometimes, I just take the day off and spend it with different activities.

Most likely, a pretty vigorous training schedule compared to yours. As I said, it all depends on the person. Later in the day, I’ll tell you more about studying.


6 03 2010

Earlier in the day, I told you my studying schedule. Now, I want to talk about studying for you.

Should You Study?

Yes! If you want to get better, there is no better way to do it than studying. If you study openings, you will probably get a better position about the opening, etc.

I know of some people who don’t study yet are very strong; instead, they learn by playing an amazing number of games, and learning from those. Will that is possible, I don’t recommend it, because it’s faster to just get the answers from a book rather than finding them yourself.

How much Time?

How much time you study depends on your chess goal (something I’m going to post about tomorrow) and how much time you have. First, the goal.

If your goal is to get to 1600 in sixth months, for example, and you’re 1450 at the moment, then you need to be more specific; decide how good you’ll have to get at openings, middle-games, and end-games and look at how good you are now. Then choose a certain goal to help you get there.

So, let’s say you want to completely learn the Grunfeld and the Ruy Lopez. Choose what material you’ll have to study to get there and estimate how much time it will take. Perhaps you want to get through a book about strategy. It’s impossible to know how much your rating will go up, so you have to break it into these separate categories (expect more on this tomorrow).

If you don’t have the time, you’ll either have to scale back your goals, or (depending on how much you like chess) you might cut into things such as watching TV or going fishing. This will be a tough decision.

Breaking it Up and Being Consistent

I recommend you make a consistent study schedule, as if you’re flying all over the place, you will be probably not get very far as you might forget the material or go through curves. I think it’s much better to stick to a schedule.

Not just a time schedule, but a schedule that breaks down into separate opening categories. For example, openings on Monday’s, end-games on Tuesdays.

So to help you study, I will be telling you what I study, reviewing it, and giving you my own material for you to study. I can’t wait to tell you about some excellent books.