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The first thing to say about chess is that we are not all natural geniuses like Beth Harmon, the star of The Queen’s Gambit, who is taught the game by grumpy but lovable janitor Mr. Shaibel at the age of nine and is very soon beating him.
The daughter of a maths PhD, she sees the patterns and movement in chess immediately, can visualise effortlessly – being able to memorise moves and play without a board is the sign of chess mastery – and sees whole games on the ceiling of her orphanage dormitory. She is a prodigy, just like world champion Bobby Fischer, on whom Walter Tevis based the novel from which the TV series is drawn. We are mere mortals. So how do we get good?
First, by loving chess. “You can only get good at chess if you love the game,” Fischer said. You need to be endlessly fascinated by it and see its infinite potential. Be willing to embrace the complexity; enjoy the adventure. Every game should be an education and teach us something. Losing doesn’t matter. Garry Kasparov, another former world champion, likes to say you learn far more from your defeats than your victories. Eventually you will start winning, but there will be a lot of losses on the way. Play people who are better than you, and be prepared to lose. Then you will learn.
If you are a beginner, don’t feel the need to set out all the pieces at once. Start with the pawns, and then add the pieces. Understand the potential of each piece – the way a pair of bishops can dominate the board, how the rooks can sweep up pawns in an endgame, why the queen and a knight can work together so harmoniously. Find a good teacher – your own Mr Shaibel, but without the communication issues.
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Once you have established the basics, start using computers and online resources to play and to help you analyse games. lichess.org, chess.com and chess24.com are great sites for playing and learning. chessbomb.com is a brilliant resource for watching top tournaments. chessgames.com is a wonderful database of games. chesspuzzle.net is a great practice program. decodechess.com attempts to explain chess moves in layperson’s language. There are also plenty of sophisticated, all-purpose programs, usually called chess engines, such as Fritz and HIARCs that, for around £50, help you deconstruct your games and take you deeply into positions. But don’t let the computer do all the work. You need to engage your own brain on the analysis. And don’t endlessly play against the computer. Find human opponents, either online or, when the pandemic is over, in person.
Bobby Fischer wins the Frank Marshall Tropy at the Marshall Chess Club on January 22 1964 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)
Study the games of great masters of the past. Find a player you like and follow their careers. Fischer is a great starting point – his play is clear and comprehensible, and beautifully described in his famous book My 60 Memorable Games. Morphy (Harmon’s favourite), Alekhine, Capablanca, Tal, Korchnoi and Shirov are other legendary figures with whom the aspiring player might identify. They also have fascinating life stories, and chess is about hot human emotions as well as cold calculation. Modern grandmaster chess, which is based heavily on a deep knowledge of opening theory, is more abstruse and may be best avoided until you have acquired deep expertise. The current crop of leading grandmasters are also, if we are brutally honest, a bit lacking in personality compared with the giants of the past.
Children will often find their school has a chess club, and that club may even have links with Chess in Schools and Communities, which supplies expert tutors to schools. Provision tends to be much better at primary than secondary level, and after 11 children will probably be left to their own devices if they want to carry on playing.
If a player is really serious, she or he should join their local chess club. There is likely to be one meeting nearby, or there will be once the Covid crisis is over. At the moment, clubs are not meeting and there is very little over-the-board chess being played. Players are keeping their brains active online, where you can meet players from all over the world. That is fun, but be aware that some players are likely to be cheating – using chess engines to help them, making it hard for you to assess how good your play is. And you also get some abuse online from players who want to trash-talk. You are also likely to be playing at very fast time controls – so-called blitz chess – and that is no way to learn to really think about chess.
If you want to start playing over-the-board tournaments (when they resume), you will need to join the chess federation in your respective country. After you’ve played the requisite number of official games, you will get a rating – a bit like a handicap in golf – and can then start being paired with players of your own strength in matches. But until then, the key is to keep enjoying chess and searching for the elusive “truth” in a position. If you see a good move, look for a better one. You can always dig a little deeper in the pursuit of something remarkable and counterintuitive. Beauty and truth: the essence of chess.
Stephen Moss is the author of The Rookie: An Odyssey through Chess (and Life), published by Bloomsbury