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Good Strategy / Bad Strategy in chess improvement

Chess TalkPosted by Lars Bo Hansen Sun, June 14, 2015 23:57:25
As a chess coach, one of the most common questions you are asked is “How do I improve in chess?” It’s a complex question, and unfortunately there is no easy answer to it.

Many books have dealt with this subject (including some of my own – see more about those here), and understandably they usually focus on GOOD strategies for chess improvement – outlining possible paths you can take if you wish to improve in chess. Here I will focus on another issue: What you definitely should AVOID DOING if you want to improve in chess – outlining some BAD strategies that will have no or even counterproductive effect on your chess.

One of the best books on business strategy that I have read in a while is UCLA Professor Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy / Bad Strategy. In it Rumelt points out three typical warning signals of bad business strategies. These are applicable to chess improvement strategies as well:

1) FLUFF TALK. If business executives only talk in loose, fluffy headlines, it is a good sign that something is wrong. Good strategy requires precise, contextual analysis, zooming in on the most critical issues, and then coming up with creative and firm-specific solutions to these issues in ways that accurately address the critical issues.

Chess improvement is the same. As Jen observed at our Orlando Chess House strategy meeting this morning (read: Sunday morning coffee at the patio), most chess players don’t have a clear picture of where they are chess-wise - what their specific strengths and weaknesses are; and when asked they are often very vague and fluffy about what they believe they need to improve, jumping from issue to issue when working on their chess. That’s the first important task of a coach – to help the student cut through the fluff and zoom in on the most critical issues in need of improvement. When we take on a new student, we always ask to see 25-30 of that student’s recent games to perform that diagnosis.

2) CAN’T EXPLAIN THE MOST CRITICAL STRATEGIC CHALLENGE. Similar to issue 1, it is a big warning sign if the business executives cannot clearly explain the most critical strategic challenge facing the firm. What is the mountain the firm needs to climb to be successful?

The main challenge is not always as straightforward as it may seem. Remember the movie Moneyball starring Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s GM (General Manager, not Grandmaster) Billy Beane? Forgive the frequent sports references in this blog; I am after all a Sport Management professor as well as a chess Grandmaster. There is an epic scene where Beane is discussing the A’s challenges with his scouts: The scouts keep coming back to the immediate problem of replacing three key players who left the team, but the GM bluntly explains how he sees the deeper challenge - and the need to adopt a different approach of using statistics to identify cheap and undervalued players: “There are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there are 50 feet of crap, and then there is us. It is an unfair game and if we play like the Yankees in here, we are going to lose to the Yankees out there!”.

Similarly in chess: Be sure that you and your coach diagnose the real mountain you need to overcome for sustainable progress, not just isolated hills here and there. While you do need to pass some hills on the way, it is identifying and overcoming the mountain that really brings success. For example, adopting or repairing a specific opening line may only be a hill; in contrast the mountain might be the need for a total overhaul of your opening repertoire to be competitive at higher levels. As I have discussed elsewhere, many chess players stall because their opening repertoires are not suited for the next level; to progress they must fundamentally change their opening repertoire.

3) HARD CHOICES ARE AVOIDED. As Rumelt points out, it is a bad sign if business executives don’t want to make hard choices. Strategy is as much about what NOT to do as about what TO do. It might be that you like Alekhine, Tal or Nakamura and want to play like them – but if the analysis of your play indicates that your natural style is more like Petrosian, Karpov or Carlsen, then you had better make the hard choice of giving up on trying to play the openings or the style of the former ones (or vice versa).

Choosing CHESS is a hard choice. Cause once you are in, you are in for good, you can never leave!

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