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The Seven Percent Solution


Quote of the Month: Can you teach someone to read without having them practice?

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To introduce this month's topic, let's examine two opposite models for instruction:


A first-grade teacher who has the class thirty-five hours per week, no


homework. A graduate-school advisor who meets with you occasionally to provide


Novice Nook


guidance and feedback.


Dan Heisman

In the first-grade model all the instruction is done in the classroom and the teacher does not expect much learning to occur at home or in-between classes.


In the graduate-school model, very little learning is done with the advisor and the student is expected to generate nearly all the benefits from his own

Chess Puzzles by Graham Burgess


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activities. Much of the coursework consists of self-study programs the professor often acts as a guide rather than a lecturer.


In chess we would primarily like to learn via the first model aided by personal study time, of course. However, this "ideal" first model is not sufficient for success without the requisite time and work. Even if you have someone available to instruct you full time, you can't learn many key chess skills just from listening to advice. Just as you can't teach someone to read without having them practice, there are many aspects of chess proficiency that can't be taught. In his book Studying Chess Made Easy, GM Andy Soltis tells how world champion Mikhail Botvinnik once remarked at a teaching session, "Boys, remember. Chess can't be taught. Chess can only be learned."


For example, you can't teach someone excellent board vision they have to

develop that themselves slowly over time (see the section "The Three Types

Chess Puzzles for Kids, Vol. 2 (his superb and challenging Switcheroos and


of Chess Vision" in my book A Guide to Chess Improvement: The Best of Novice Nook) by playing long time control games slowly, possibly augmented with board vision puzzles, such as those found in Jeff Coakley's Winning


Double Whammies are worth the price of the book alone), or ChessCafe. com's weekly Chess Mazes by Bruce Alberston.


Almost every strong chess player had extensive coaching. This coaching is extremely helpful even necessary because it is very easy to misuse or misunderstand your privately learned information (a la Silman's The Amateur's Mind). So everyone who wishes to improve can greatly benefit


from having someone identify what they are doing wrong (or don't know) and demonstrate how to correct it see The Improvement Feedback Loop.

The Fundamentals by Artur Yusupov

Nevertheless, this ideal situation is more the exception rather than the rule. For many players the best they can do is find a "human" instructor for an hour every week or two. Therefore, the second model better describes most players' chess learning situation.

In this model, the "chess" time in-between lessons is much longer than the lesson time, and how you spend it is very important. I estimate roughly seven percent of what you will learn over the long haul will occur during lessons hence The Seven Percent Solution. Self-study, including individual review of games and positions and identification of proper study material become key skills, and the instructor should be your expert guide, helping you develop and

improve in these areas, as covered in previous Novice Nooks such as The Four Homeworks, Chess Books and Prerequisites, and Reviewing Chess Games. Common oversights made during "homework" time was the subject of Getting the Edge.

The role of the instructor as "guide" requires specific and helpful instruction, but, without consistent interaction, the student may vary from the intended path. I suggest my students call me if they have any questions between lessons.

Let's take a typical coaching situation and see how a lesson can help focus on key learning issues.

Suppose a student

is rated 1250 by the U.S. Chess Federation.

has twenty hours in-between lessons to study.

has recently completed his first lesson.

had been advised by his instructor to allocate the following percentages of his "chess study" time:

Fifty percent playing slow time control games, trying to take almost all allotted time each game.

Five percent playing fast games using the same increment as local over- the-board tournaments.

Twenty percent doing appropriate chess puzzles (with repetitious study of basic tactics).

Fifteen percent reading instructive annotated games.

Five percent reading or viewing miscellaneous chess material.

Five percent openings research after games, learning tabiyas, and general opening principles.

Let's further assume the student actually uses his time as follows:

Plays a few slow games at time controls of twenty minutes a game, thirty minutes a game, and game in forty-five with a forty-five second increment (eight hours).

Plays no fast games.

Does chess puzzles from Reinfeld's 1001 Chess Combinations and Sacrifices (four hours).

Does not read any annotated master games.

Reads from the middle of My System (four hours).

Reads and tries to memorize lines from Starting Out: The Caro Kann (four hours).

How can the instructor help his student during the second one-hour lesson? Using our graduate school analogy, here are typical, general ideas the instructor can convey:

My job is to teach you how and what to study, but not necessary try to teach you everything during lesson time. I am just your guide I can't talk you into being a good chess player. The student is going to have to do the work. However, it is important to elicit and answer any questions. I begin and end each lesson by asking if there are any questions (see The Mind Reading Fish).

GM Rowson wrote in Chess for Zebras that giving intermediate adults more "chess knowledge" does not make them better players. An instructor has to teach you to analyze and evaluate better, which will help on every "non-book" move. For this reason, reviewing the student's most instructive games to see if they are improving in the areas previously identified (such as criticality assessment, playing too fast or too slow, or avoiding quiescence errors), plus the identification of any new areas brought to light by the latest games, and the appropriate homework (such as Novice Nooks or instructional videos) that may address those areas.

Discuss the lack of cost-benefit the student may experience from trying to memorize opening lines. One question I ask is "You are 1280; suppose you could instantaneously memorize all of MCO-15? What would your playing

strength be with all that additional opening knowledge?" Anyone who gives an answer above 1400 is under some heavy misconceptions about what it takes to become a good player. These are the same players who complain "I studied all those openings, but then my opponent made a move I did not study!" This is not surprising, as no one can ever be prepared for all possible replies because of the millions of reasonable opening sequences. But it should also not be upsetting. See the additional topic "How Much Does Memorizing Extra Opening Moves Help?" in Adjusting Your Thought Process for Faster Time Controls and Don't Know What to Do? Try Dan's Dirty Dozen.

As discussed in Hand Waving is Worse than Hope Chess, a majority of positions are at least somewhat analytical, and finding the best move in these positions cannot be done by just understanding principles better. A player has to roll up his sleeves and do some serious analysis if he wants to be a good player. I am surprised how many players who "want to be an expert or a master" don't understand this and go from one instructor to another wondering why they can't get the key knowledge they need that will take them to their goal. Checking the student's time-stamping in his latest games will provide a clue of whether the student is able to identify analytical positions and take the appropriate time. Any instructor who does not make that check is assuming that a mistake played in ten seconds has the same causes as one played in ten minutes. The examination of time-stamping along with asking the student their reasons for a move often provides insight into both reasons for the mistake and suggested improvements in thought process.

By judiciously studying and using their instructor to answer questions, provide guidelines, help find the right balance of competition, and promote understanding of the material, the work in-between lessons becomes far more effective. Of course, not all this work is equally fun for all students (see Chess, Learning, and Fun). The result is that some of the most effective "homework" is not completed (see Getting the Edge), such as, in this hypothetical student's case, the lack of both speed games and reading instructive annotated games (see The Four Homeworks and Reviewing Chess Games) or the questionable use of intermediate time controls like game in twenty minutes (see Intermediate Time Controls Hinder Improvement).

As noted in When Adults Learn Basic Material, just because a player is capable of reading My System, it does not necessarily make it appropriate for either his level or his needs. My System is a classic, but it is a very "wide" book and there is quite a bit of modern instructive material that covers the bases at a more appropriate level. To quote John Watson, "We are living in the golden age of chess books."

Each student has specific weaknesses, but a new instructor doesn't know what they are, so he needs to find them. Besides the obvious approach of asking a student what their perceived weaknesses are, there are two good additional methods to diagnose:

a) Provide puzzles that identify specific needs and see how the student


b) Review a student's games and see what type of errors he commits.

Interestingly, each method can uncover weaknesses missed by the other. For example, a puzzle may show the student is vulnerable to missing basic removal-of-the-guard ideas, which may not have occurred in any recent games. Or a game could show a player generally plays much too fast, while the student may be more careful about solving puzzles, because he is "being tested" by the instructor. So the best approach to diagnosing a student is to combine "problem-specific" puzzles with time-stamped review of recent games. Our hypothetical second lesson can include a little of each.

If an adult student is willing to discuss (or at least understand) the applicable issues suggested above, we are off to a good start! Sometimes prospective students expect me to magically make them better with just a few key insights or phrases. (Some can help: see Real Chess, Time Management, and Care:

Putting it All Together.) At the other extreme, there are many who are ready to "do the work," but when the work involves barriers they have chosen not to

cross, it can be a key barrier as well (see Breaking Down Barriers). If acquiring expertise at chess was easy, most players would be experts and masters, yet only about two percent of USCF members achieve that ranking.

About a year ago I was hired by a father to coach his ten-year-old son. I had the father read some of the "lesson" material that I referenced above and gave his son a couple of lessons. As always, at the start and end of each lesson I asked the son if he had any questions and he did not have many, which is not unusual for students of that age.

After the second or third lesson, the father asked me if I was going to teach about isolated pawns. I told him I would be glad to, but a more efficient method would be for his son to first read some elementary material on the subject; for example, from the excellent Winning Chess Strategy for Kids by Coakley. Afterward, I would field any questions including reviewing all the material if necessary. For the most part, during a lesson I prefer to primarily cover subjects that cannot be easily found in a text book, like what the player was thinking during a game, how they managed their time, what errors in their game indicate about what they know, etc. These things cannot be ascertained from written material; it takes live interaction, and that is the optimum way to use lesson time. I view my students' time as valuable and want to spend it primarily on feedback that only a human coach can supply.

The father was aghast and acted as if I had refused to teach his son anything! As a result, I lost that student. It was sad that the father refused to trust my expertise on the matter. I sincerely hope he found a new instructor (see Finding a Good Instructor) who can provide exactly what he wants. In order to help prospective students decide if my approach matches their needs, I have a "Probably Will Click/Probably Won't Click" list at my website.

Question I'm wondering what it takes to learn the endgame. Dvoretsky says his and Silman's books are all a student needs. Do you think this is true? Can I really develop my endgame technique to the fullest by studying just these two books, or is it necessary to go through a large number of endgame books?

Answer As I have written several times, I did not learn endgames primarily from reading endgame books. A key one I did read is Essential Chess Endgames by Averbakh. Instead, I learned by playing through hundreds of annotated master games. This let me learn about most things in chess, including endgames. The next thing that helped was playing many slow games, where I had plenty of time to think in the endgame, and then reviewing those endgames with better players. I would think that approach is much better than theoretical book learning.

As GM Soltis put it in Studying Chess Made Easy, you don't need to learn more than twenty or so specific endgame positions. The remainder are fairly rare or advanced. You want to learn generic endgame knowledge that can be applied to many positions. So learning how to play a type of endgame is much more important than, say, learning Lucena or Philidor positions. Silman's Complete Endgame Course takes the interesting approach of starting with the elementary material and then each subsequent chapter covers the material that should be learned by the next higher "class" (200 rating points).

Question Of the last five or so games I played, I have been worse out of the opening in three, yet won all of them. My opponent either blundered or missed a tactic. However, I lost both the games where I was ahead out of the opening, leaving a pawn en prise in both and then falling apart with the need to switch from offense to defense. Do you have any specific advice to address it?

Answer There are two issues:

1) How to win a game where your advantage is just enough to win is called technique and it depends on the type of advantage in question. You develop technique from playing over many annotated instructive

games and playing many games and reviewing them with strong players.

2) How to win when you are way ahead and winning easily. For this, read the Novice Nook When You're Winning It's a Whole Different Game, and others such as Don't Allow the Floobly.

In general, weaker players play "Hope Chess." This means they don't

consistently and systematically check to see if their move is safe ("Can my

opponent reply with a check, capture, or threat that cannot be met?"). Failure

to do this means any advantage is not safe it only takes one bad move to

lose a game!

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