Frequently Asked Questions
There are a lot of common questions I am asked quite frequently. It makes the most sense to list as many of them here as possible so that I can save my breath and direct one's attention to this page in the future for clarity.
How good can I become in chess?
Not surprisingly, this is the most common question I am asked. It seems that the person asking the question is dreaming that the person answering the question will reply, "world champion!" but truthfully the person answering the question can almost never have the necessary information to make such a bold prediction. Your realistic development in chess depends on many factors, which include but are not limited to: 1. Visual spatial intelligence (it makes no sense to tell an 80 IQ person he can just be a grandmaster if he tries a little bit harder. This is not only misleading, false, and with zero evidence behind it, but quite cruel) 2. The amount of time that you realistically will devote to chess every day (at least one hour if you have goals of gaining a few hundred points in a relatively short amount of time) 3. How frequently you plan to play chess tournaments (a lot of people have the idea that they are "just not ready" to play chess tournaments, so their rating stagnates for many months rather than going up) 4. How well you deal with pressure and adversity 5. How you have decided to manage your funds 6. Your general level of dedication and motivation. Once you give me some information on all of these subjects, I am finally qualified to give you a rough estimation of possible realistic development within a realistic time frame. The important thing is to not let your ego dictate everything here and search for a pink unicorn.
Is it a good idea to take chess lessons even if I am ultimately not that serious about chess?
Absolutely. In truth, well over 99% of people who take piano lessons do not become professional piano players. They simply enjoy learning instructive things from an expert, especially ones that are culturally relevant or important. Most piano teachers charge well over $50 an hour, but I have yet to come across someone who said, "Man, I wish I could take back all of those piano lessons I took as a kid!" Certain skills will stick with you if you try to develop them. Likewise, the sorts of skills you can develop from chess are also very useful, namely considering all of the options before making decisions and applying different types of logic and skepticism to different complex situations. Many of the chess players that I teach prefer to learn through osmosis, and I certainly don't blame them for that.
My child is a young aspiring player. Why should I hire a chess coach, let alone you?
There are a wide variety of reasons to hire a chess teacher. I will list a few of them. Firstly, for a child, chess can develop many thinking techniques which are vital for many different fields. Among those thinking techniques are: reciprocal thinking, the method of elimination, progressive thinking, and developing mental agility. Of course, many chess coaches do not improve a player in any of those areas, but I address them all quite regularly. As a young player, the guidance of someone who has many years of experience coaching grandmasters and working his way through the hoops through trial and error gives off many great dividends. Not to mention, there is much added emotional support and confidence (vital for playing optimal chess) from a positive chess coach that gives you constructive criticism and helps you get in the right mindframe for a game. The inspiration, confidence, and experience you can acquire from a coach is something you won't obtain from any other source.
I am an adult player who is struggling to get better. Is there a reason I need a chess coach?
If you are an adult player struggling to get better, you should be aware that I was in your shoes. I got my first international rating at age 20 and only become an international master after working methodically for years to improve my chess understanding. Many people have the false impression that they can gain everything they need from chess computers, but this misses many key points. We play chess like humans and think about chess like humans, so a solid grasp of planning and the main thinking techniques used in chess are vital for your development. You are bound to end up in situations where you have no idea what went wrong and someone with years of experience can easily guide you through these stumbling blocks and save you years of developmental stagnation.
How can you coach grandmasters if you are not a grandmaster yourself?
Accumulating training positions, analyzing your games in a professional manner, and analyzing openings in a deep, detailed, methodical and professional way is not necessarily connected to one's rating. As GM Bryan Smith wrote in a chess.com article, "Erik Kislik has 2700 level openings." He may have been exaggerating, but I understand what he meant. Some people have certain specialties and it's worthwhile to learn from the experts whenever you can.
Would you hire a chess coach yourself? What was your experience with coaches in the past?
If you are serious about chess and can afford to pay for a chess coach, a second, or a full-time trainer, you always should. This is not a gimmicky statement that I made up on the fly. Realistically speaking, tournaments are exhausting, and we should try to play with the maximum confidence, lowest stress levels, and least responsbilities during a tournament. If you hire a trainer during a tournament who helps you with confidence, lowers your stress (by helping with game analysis and preparation), and gives you more time to relax and enjoy the event, it is worth every penny. In the past, I hired a number of different chess trainers. There are a wide variety of reasons for this: 1. To get a unique and different perspective on an opening variation or position. 2. To see how someone else thinks about chess and to make sure that I didn't make any major oversights in my initial conclusions. 3. To be motivated to sit down and seriously learn something that otherwise may not have seemed all that enticing to spend 5 hours studying alone. 4. When a friend of mine hired me as a coach, it was always very productive and useful for both parties. The reason is quite simple: you allot your time differently and treat the analysis much more seriously and academically if you take it very seriously. Working on the clock, you not only expend your energy better, but you get much more done, while preparing before the lesson and consolidating the material after it.
What separates you as a teacher? Is there any specific skillset?
Oddly enough, there are not a whole lot of native English speakers who are 2400 level chess players in the world. In many countries like Ireland for example, that would place one firmly in the top 5 and on the national team. For those that speak English with a high level of proficiency, there is a high demand in the market for chess teachers and chess authors who produce high quality content. There will not be a shortage of writing and coaching possibilities in the foreseeable future for those in this situation. I suspect there are very few other chess coaches who are as genuinely interested in your development and success and will be willing to answer your questions around the clock in a timely fashion.
A lot of chess coaches claim that their methods are revolutionary. Is that a scam? How can I tell for myself?
Unless the guy in question is Magnus Carlsen, I suppose you aren't looking for completely revolutionary ideas. I suppose you would want to ask the person claiming that for some evidence. In most cases, it is a teacher's job to explain and work through classical concepts much moreso than it is to reinvent the wheel. I would be very weary of any bold claims with nothing backing them up.
Why don't you offer a free one hour lesson for students starting out anymore?
I offered this free hour for a total of 5 students. It was mostly a way for people to get free content who weren't serious about working on chess and weren't very serious about taking lessons in the first place. A lot of people get scared off by the idea of having to commit to things and make serious decisions, like about their improvement in chess. When people start to haggle about prices and ask for everything for free, they come across as being unfair, and dehumanizing. It is no surprise that all of the grandmasters I have worked with have paid me directly up front and there has never been any doubt or dispute about that aspect of our work. In a basic sense, professionalism breeds professionalism.
Do you have other skills that are worth knowing about?
I am also a personal trainer, and have been a chef/personal trainer/coach for players before. A lot of players downplay the importance of physical health in chess. Definitely don't forget about it! I am also currently very active in the computer chess scene, and have worked with the Rybka team in the past on what was the world's strongest chess computer. Now I occasionally help with developments on the two strongest chess programs in the world: Komodo and Stockfish. It helps tremendously to understand the flaws and weaknesses of the top engines, as it allows one to have a better grasp and feeling for when you should trust the engine and when you shouldn't.
Don't you think your prices are a little bit too expensive?
In the German chess federation, the fees for a trainer start at 25 euros per hour, for presumably the lowest quality trainer among the batch. For a modest 50, you get presumably the best one. My advice would be to look at the prices 1800-2000 players are charging for lessons in Los Angeles and New York City. When you see how much they're charging you'll come running back to me with open arms. But in any case, if you can't afford them, make me a concrete deal for 20 hours and we can arrange something. The goal is to develop longstanding relationships and partnerships to lead to long-term personal growth. If I can help you for a reduced price, I will. If you truly cannot afford the lessons, gather together a few chess friends and each of you can select a game or two of yours that we can analyze together as a group. Surely less than 10 euros per person for 4 people is affordable.
Shouldn't I just hire a grandmaster instead of you?
If you have a GM coach who started chess at age 18, and has many other skills besides chess, then you should hire him above me. I think that this applies to practically 0 GMs in the world, so the argument is rather speculative. I would suggest looking at the value someone can provide very closely. Some grandmasters have the problem that things are so obvious to them that they don't bother to explain things in a simple way. Having started chess so late and with a heavy emphasis on simple logic, I've had to break everything down and compartmentalize everything into easily accessible blocks that I am able to comprehend, but that a player 1000 elo points weaker can also understand.
What were the first chess books you read when you started playing? Should I read them?
Understanding Chess Move by Move by John Nunn and Kramnik - My Life and Games were the first two books I can recall buying and studying. I really enjoyed the commentary in both books, and I began to view chess decisions in a game as a logically connected whole. Nunn does an excellent job of explaining things simply and can certainly put you in the mood to learn about chess and play it. If you are looking for very recent books, I can recommend my books and Arkell's Endings by Keith Arkell.
Do you agree with the often quoted statement, "Chess is 99% Tactics"?
No. I think it's too dogmatic to say that chess is 99% anything. It's a popular phrase but has no particular meaning or practical application. It's something you might hear on an infomercial at 3 in the morning. Only with a rock solid definition and very thorough evidence is it possible to intelligently make such a wild claim. Most grandmasters I talk to constantly stress the important of general chess understanding and structural understanding. It would be wildly unscientific to consider all of general chess understanding as less than 1% of chess playing.
Do you think it's useful to write down in a notebook the pawn structures I have played recently?
That is an excellent idea, and as far as I am aware, I don't really know anyone else who suggests doing so as a staple of your general game analysis. If you rigorously analyze all of the typical pawn structures that you play, you can expect a major long-term gain in strength and rating.
What would you recommend outside of taking lessons from you?
I suggest analyzing your games, solving difficult tactical positions (you can do this on your own generally, and during a paid lesson, it's not really fair to give you a difficult position to solve for 20 minutes), thinking through difficult positional problems (although admittedly this is best done when you can consult a coach, so that they can guide your thinking), (this is where a coach is very useful, to guide your thinking and discuss), and book study roughly 30 minutes a day. Once you establish a routine and discipline, it will be motivating as you see your rating go up slowly.