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It's Not Chess, It's You...

AnalysisChess
Geoff blundered their Queen and now they want to microwave their laptop.

The strong emotions that we thought we had put behind us as adults come rushing back to the surface through our experiences with chess. In those cases I tell my students:

It’s not you, it’s chess.

So many regular adults, so many dramatic child-like outbursts. I love hearing about them because I take sadistic pleasure from it, and it also makes me feel better about my own chess-induced meltdowns.

But when it comes to chess improvement, we have to face the opposite version of this truth:

It’s not chess, it’s you.

Let me explain.

Why You Are More Important Than Chess

“I don’t care that much about the chess”

Maybe that isn’t what you want to hear from your chess coach. But when it comes to the analysis of my students' games, that is exactly what I say. I don’t care that much about the chess, I care about you. There are plenty of books about chess, but there are no books about you playing chess. So that is what we are here to focus on.

This is the essence of my coaching philosophy which you will hear more about in this post.

You can try my coaching live and for free, in a 60-minute trial lesson with me.

Does Talent Exist in Chess?

It has been almost a year since I began coaching. In that time I have had the pleasure of working with many students, some of whom were almost completely new to the game and wanted to kickstart their progress, others who had begun at roughly the same time as I had and were frustrated with their lack of progress.

Many Adult Improvers I have worked with have even “graduated’’ by reaching my current level and going beyond - a case of ‘the student surpasses the non-Master’ that I am actually really proud of as a teacher.

Through my experience this past year, there is one common trait I see in my students who have made the most progress. This trait is what I would call talent.

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Everyone has a different starting level or rating when they take up chess as Adults. But that means almost nothing. An Adult Improver’s subsequent rate of progress has nothing to do with their entry rating in my experience - whether they start at 400 or 1200.

Regardless of starting level, there is one key element I see in my students who achieve progress: they have talent. And that talent lies not in their innate ability to play the game, but in their ability to improve at it.

What Drives Improvement?

First of all, there is a caveat to all of this which is: if you want to get better at chess you have to put in the work. Sounds obvious. All my students get a personalised skill-based study plan (you can download the template I use for free). But if you don’t put in a base level of work - playing games and analysing, doing pattern recognition and calculation exercises and expanding your knowledge of the game - then you won’t improve.

Beyond just doing the work, which is the easy bit as you just need to do it, there is something else I see that tells me almost from the offset how quickly a student will improve:

How quickly you improve depends largely on your ability to self-reflect.

It lies in your willingness to be honest and introspective about yourself. It is your capacity to remove ego from the process of chess improvement.

It’s Not Chess...

All of my students have a Lichess Study that we share full of their annotated games. The first thing I do with my students is get them on the aforementioned skill-based study plan. Part of that means annotating their games. One of the earliest things I show them is what kinds of things they should be writing down in their annotation.

I always let them do the first annotation themselves - unguided. And almost without exception, the annotations are full of chess. Quotes like:

“Here I should have played Nd7 instead”
“I should have brought my rook to the open file”
“I shouldn’t have pushed that pawn in front of my king”
“I shouldn’t have let their knight get to e5”
“Trading here was a mistake”

After we look at the first annotated game together, I find myself repeating the same thing over and over again:

“I don’t care so much about the chess.”

...It’s You

When we make a chess mistake, we often already know it is a mistake about five seconds after we have played the move. Even if that is not the case, we are able to look back at the game and work out why certain decisions we made were chess errors. We can find our own bad moves ourselves and, most of the time we can offer up the correct reason for why the move was bad and find a good alternative.

So if we know better, then why don’t we play better moves during the game itself?

My students can mostly find their own errors themselves and they know why the chess mistakes they make are chess mistakes, because - like most Adult Improvers - they possess a good amount of chess knowledge. They don’t need me to tell them they shouldn’t have lost the exchange because rooks are more valuable than bishops. They don’t need me to show them what a fork is in order to avoid getting forked. They know these things.

In order to stop making chess mistakes we know are mistakes, we do not need to understand more about chess - we need to understand more about ourselves.

Because the chess concept behind the mistake is already known. It is the reason why we make decisions we know are bad that we don’t yet understand.

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Quick caveat: sometimes my students make moves that are bad and they don’t know why they are bad. But that is much rarer and, as a coach, it is not something I am too concerned about. If you don’t know why a move is bad, you will eventually - as you gather more chess knowledge. The more pressing issue is the moves you already know are mistakes that you keep making anyway - this is where the real improvement lies in my experience.

So how do you stop making mistakes you know are mistakes? We have established that learning more about a concept you already know isn’t going to help. We don’t break the opening principles because we don’t know what they are. So why do we?

What Were You Thinking, Geoff?

Let’s get back to Geoff from the introduction. They've calmed down and removed their laptop from the microwave. In fact, they've started to annotate the loss that caused them so much distress.

“I shouldn’t have played Rd1 to defend my d2 pawn going passive in a rook endgame”

Obviously Geoff, by writing that, you are clearly demonstrating to me that you already know activity is vital in a rook endgame.

Whilst chess annotation is helpful for me as a coach to know what my students know and don’t know, it isn’t eliminating errors. Like I said, I don’t care so much about the chess mistake. I care about why you made the chess mistake.

To find out why Geoff played Rd1, despite knowing that Rd1 was terrible, they additionally need to annotate what they were thinking about and feeling before they made the move.

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It is only by understanding why we make the mistakes we know are mistakes, that we can begin to work to eliminate them.

Where was your attention on the board when you blundered the fork? What were you thinking? Not: what the fuck were you thinking you idiot! But: what were you actually thinking about and experiencing right at that moment in your game?

By writing this down, patterns inevitably begin to emerge. We go for tactics that don’t work because we get so excited at the prospect of winning that we play the move too quickly, not properly checking if it works. Only by writing down our thoughts and feelings are we able to recognise this and start to see the root cause of our issues. To solve this issue, we don’t need to learn more about tactics and we don’t need to learn how to calculate better either - we need to calm the fuck down when we think we see a win and sit on our hands so we actually use the tactical and calculation skills we already have.

Not getting too excited and trigger-happy when you think you're about to win a minor piece is not a chess thing, it’s a you thing.

Let Me Give You a Hug, Geoff

Geoff’s cycling to the laptop repair shop now, and feeling a bit silly. It’s been a couple of hours since the game, and now they're trying to think of a way to explain to their boss why their work laptop is a bit melted. Poor Geoff. They are not in a good place.

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Instead of endlessly lambasting themselves for their inconceivable errors, I want Geoff to be introspective. As his coach, I’d give them the equivalent of a hug: I’d remind them that what they’re experiencing is very common for Adult Improvers including myself, and that these moments are part of chess improvement for many of us. When they can see that the world has not collapsed because of their error, we’ll move on to the self-reflection questions - and yes this was inspired by my psychologist wife, not by my Scottish upbringing.

What were you thinking about Geoff? What were you really thinking about? Write that down. Where was your attention? What area of the board were you looking at? What idea in your mind caused you to overlook an attack on her majesty?

How did you feel? No not afterwards, you’ve made that clear. What were you feeling before you moved? Complacency, fear, a little bit hungry?

Honesty + Vulnerability = Chess Talent

The ability to vulnerably, accurately and honestly write down the thoughts and feelings experienced during a game helps me to help my students identify patterns in their thought processes that lead to mistakes. And the ability to do this is what I call chess talent.

Not everyone can be honest about their own flaws.

Chess talent is the ability to be accurate and honest in our introspection. Chess talent is the ability to remove ego. To separate the self from the chess. Chess talent is to admit our faulty thought processes and be willing to change them. Because only by honestly admitting and annotating our real thoughts and feelings during a game can we begin to change them.

Chess talent is being willing to say: I know a3 and h3 weren’t developing moves and therefore chess mistakes. But I am so scared of knights jumping to g4 and b4 due to previous traumatic events on the c2 and f2 squares, that I now convince myself that the moves a3 and h3 are essential prophylaxis everytime a knight lands on c6 and f6.

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It’s being able to say: “Hello, my name is Geoff and I am afraid of knights. I don’t even like to look at my own knights anymore. My wife asked me this morning what it means ‘to be forked on c2.’ I was muttering it in my sleep. She is growing suspicious. She thinks I might be having an affair. My life's falling apart. I need to stop playing a3.”

Thank you for sharing, Geoff. And let me tell you, I know that because you were willing to admit this fear not only to me but to yourself, that you - out of all my students - have the greatest potential to improve.

If you get defensive about the moves you play in a game, if you try to justify your own mistakes to yourself (and your chess coach) and dare I say to Stockfish - then you are doomed to continue in the same faulty thought processes that you have always had.

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Finding Your Flaws

So through my students' honest and vulnerable annotations I learn the reasons why their marriage is suffering and why they keep playing unnecessary prophylactic moves like a3 and h3. In this case they were being made because the student felt afraid.

If I sought to only understand the chess mistake, then as a coach I might give a lesson on opening principles. I might try to teach my students why moving pawns and not developing pieces in the opening is generally bad. But by doing this, I would probably be teaching them things they already know. And I expect my students would not continue with me as a coach for very long if I kept trying to repeatedly teach them things they already knew or could learn themselves from a YouTube video or chess book.

That would not drive improvement. So instead of teaching them opening principles, I challenged Geoff to keep writing down the times during the game they felt afraid. And we talked about it. We talked strategies for learning to recognise this fear during a game. And then we moved on to being able to calm down and ultimately not to play a move motivated by fear.

We talked about what was actually happening before they played these moves. We identified the thundering of their heart. A general sense of anxiety and panic. Fear. We talked about what chess thoughts they had as a result of that fear.

And slowly, Geoff was able to feel the fear in their games and consciously recognise it. From there on, they could catch themselves. They were able to stop and say: “I am afraid. I recognise that and I know that from this place of fear I often make chess decisions which I know are bad.”

Geoff Has Changed

And then Geoff hears a second voice: my voice. I have told Geoff that the next time they feel fear in their game to stop. To recognise their tendency to play an unjustified defensive move as a result of that fear. I tell them to carry the mantra:

Fear is not a variation.

So now, when Geoff feels afraid of the knight coming to b4, they should calculate. Because fear is not a variation. Only by calculating can we assess if there is real danger, if there is a justification for our fear. What is the variation Geoff? And Geoff starts calculating:

“What if I just continue developing despite my terror? And what if they then play Nb4? What happens? I GET FORKED ON C2! Calm down. Calm down, Geoff. Focus. Fear is not a variation. Take some deep breaths. It’s okay. We don’t know if you're getting forked yet. We only know that the knight has landed on b4. What if I develop another piece when the knight is on b4? I GET FORKED ON C2. No. Breathe. Is c2 an issue? No, it's defended twice and attacked only once by the b4 knight. It’s okay. The c2 square is safe. It’s safe! Hallelujah! You’re safe Geoff, a3 is not required.”

Geoff looks up at their OTB opponent and boldly declares: “I do not fear your knight good sir, for I, Geoff, have calculated. And there is noooooooo danger!”

Geoff's opponent called the arbiter over and they had to forfeit the game. But it was a victory in chess improvement. It was a victory in self-improvement. I am proud of Geoff.

Geoff Has Improved

Geoff doesn’t unnecessarily play a3 or h3 anymore. And the reason for that isn’t because they learned that you shouldn’t make unnecessary pawn moves in the opening. It isn’t because they went away and watched the video I gave them about opening principles. It was because they were able to admit to themselves that they were afraid of knights jumping into b4 and g4. Geoff was willing to accept that they didn’t actually calculate in the face of fear. Or if they did, that they were unwilling to trust their own calculation through the terror. Geoff was stuck in trauma from past chess experiences that caused them, to believe things that weren’t real.

They believed in danger on c2 and f2 that didn’t actually exist. By discovering this about themselves, Geoff was able to feel the fear enter their system when the opponent’s knights were developed to f6 or c6, and then they were able to stop the autopilot reach for the a- or h-pawn by hearing my gentle but firm voice in their head:

“Fear is not a variation, Geoff.”

And then they began to calculate.

Conclusion

Progress like this in chess is hard and can seem slow. But this process is vital not just to solve your current chess issues, but also to prevent future chess issues. By identifying our thought process errors, we can improve not just the symptoms but actually eliminate the root cause of our mistakes. Learning more about chess (in my experience) is less effective for improving the way we make decisions.

It is not only what we know about chess that helps us to make decisions in our games, it is what we know about ourselves. And I believe this second part deserves much more attention than it usually gets in the chess world. The ability to be introspective and admit our own flaws, the ability to be willing to change, to remove ego from our chess - is the path to real, sustainable improvement. Stubbornness and ego have no place in the development of the self, in the development of your chess or in my virtual classroom.

The next time you make a mistake in chess, place the emphasis not on what you did wrong, but why you did it. Where was your attention and what were you feeling?

And if you’d like to experience my delightful voice in your head as well, you’re welcome to schedule a trial lesson with me where I’ll help you to explore and find the you underneath the chess.


A special thanks to my new Patrons: Dawn Lawson, Mikey W, Alan M, Dan Bock, Jose C, and Marcus Buffet, and thank you for you continued support Ben Johnson, Andrew M, Ché Martin, Stefan K, Rob M, Ross W, Bowie, Gregory C, Karen W, Michael G, Michael S, and NoSir100.

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If you are an adult improver rated <1100 FIDE (<1600 Lichess rapid/classical, <1300 chess.com rapid) then I'm happy to give you a free trial lesson.

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