In today's New York Times chess column, Dylan Loeb McClain interviews GM John Fedorowicz and IM Danny Kopec, who offer some useful tips for those looking to improve at chess this summer. I especially like Fedorowicz's advice, which includes playing a lot of games, choosing and studying an opening repertoire that suits your style, and reading endgame books and game collections of the greats. Interestingly, he does not think studying books on tactics (or, presumably, CT-ART) as important as playing, and Kopec does not mention tactical study either.
Fedorowicz's disregard for the "study tactics, tactics, and more tactics" mantra of chess improvement gurus reminded me of a recent conversation I had with two-time NJ Open champ Tommy Bartell on the subject. I was trying to think of some books on tactics to recommend to a developing player at the club, and out of curiosity turned to Tommy, who was seated nearby, and asked what books he'd recommend. I was surprised when the only ones he could think of were the "1001..." series by Fred Reinfeld. "Well, what did you look at when you were a kid?" I asked. "I never really read books on tactics," he said, adding "I just learned by playing."
Hearing this young, 2400+ FM say he thought playing was more vital to his understanding of tactics than book study, I felt a little surprised. So when I read Fedorowicz saying more or less the same thing, I began to ask some more questions. Do strong players invest any time in tactical training or do they just play a lot? And if they just play a lot, is that better than study? And if it is better than study, why might that be?
One idea comes to mind watching a recent video at the excellent Chess Vibes blog that show Jonathan Rowson discussing his book Chess for Zebras, where, for instance, he discusses how the traditional way of determining the relative value of the pieces (by assigning point values, beginning with one point for a pawn) is both wrong and not how GMs really think.
Why don't GMs think that way? Maybe because they learned these things intuitively by playing a lot of games rather than "by the book." And, as Rowson argues in Chess for Zebras, one of the things that keeps developing players from improving often is the settled beliefs and habits of mind they have developed -- often from reading chess books.... So maybe the best advice is to leave most of those books alone -- except, perhaps, for the game collections of the greats, where you are likely to pick up a thing or two about how to think without being subjected to a lot of theory.... I'm still puzzling over this one, but in many ways it does fit with my view that there is chess knowledge and chess practice and the two are often unrelated. Perhaps the secret to success at chess is to just get plenty of practice.