The learning process in chess

When I first started in the chess software business a couple of decades ago, I was tasked with teaching people how to use chess engines and databases to help them realize their goal of chess success. I remember how, at that time, I was hit with a sudden realization – in order to fulfill that task, I had to myself learn about how people learn.

Over the years I’ve come to some simple conclusions and, believe it or not, they directly relate to the subject of chess engine analysis of your games (which has been the subject of most of the posts to this blog over the last several weeks).

Think back to your school days for a moment. Remember when you were first learning a math concept such as addition or division. You were first taught how to perform that function. Then you were given a bunch of exercises to complete (often as homework) so that you could practice the concept you’d been taught. And then you’d take a test and be graded on how well you’d learned how to add or divide numbers.

That’s pretty much the way chess works (in a stripped-down form). Ideally, you learn an idea (such as, say, the weakness of a backward pawn). You practice the idea against a chess computer or in a casual game (face to face or online). Then the test comes when you play a rated game with the grade being the result of the game.

The differences with chess lie in the fact that a single game doesn’t test you on just one individual concept but instead on dozens (or even scores) of concepts and, consequently, the learning process never ends.

It’s an essentially endless cycle, which consists of three parts:

  1. Study/learning;
  2. Practice/playing
  3. Analysis/evaluation

You study chess materials such as chess books, magazines, videos, database games, etc. to acquire knowledge. You play games in an effort to successfully apply that knowledge. You analyze your games to an effort to identify weak points in your play where you either failed to successfully apply the knowledge or encountered a problem completely new to you. After you identify these weak points, you study chess materials to try to correct those deficiencies. And thus the process starts all over again.

Two parts of the process are neatly encapsulated in the title of a classic chess book from the early 1960’s, written by I.A. Horowitz: Chess Openings, Theory and Practice. The book took an interesting approach to the chess opening; it described the ideas behind a chess opening (the “theory”) and then demonstrated the specific variations which masters and grandmasters actually played in that opening (the “practice”). Those are the notions behind the first two steps in the improvement cycle: you learn an idea (the theory) and then apply it in your actual games (the practice).

The third step of the cycle, analysis, is where your chess engine comes in.

By having your chessplaying engine (Fritz, Rybka, Hiarcs, Junior, and Shredder) analyze your games, you can learn which aspects of your chess play need work: which phase of your game is deficient, whether you’re losing games tactically or strategically, and so on. This information will guide Step One of the learning process (i.e. study), allowing you to focus on the areas which need work.

Illustrating how to do this is where we’re heading next…

Have fun! – Steve Lopez

Chessplayers who have purchased their ChessBase brand chess computer software from USCFSales can receive free technical support and advice on their purchases straight from me; just shoot me an e-mail (, but please remember to include the USCFSales order number from your ChessBase software purchase. – Steve

Copyright 2011, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.


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Filed under chess, chess engine, Chess playing software, Chess software, Chess Tiger, ChessBase, Fritz, Hiarcs, Junior, Rybka, Shredder

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