Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight

Last weekend I played in the USCF rated side event to the Colorado vs. New Mexico team challenge in Fountain, Colorado.

The team event was a great idea where each state had a team of players, one from each class.  Then each class played 2 games against each other, one with each color.

Congrats to the New Mexico, team who won by a full point.  You can see the tournament results here.

During the event I had lunch with a chess friend of mine, that I have known for several years now.  My friend, who is very intelligent, and in his mid-30s, told me a story that is unfortunately very common in the chess world.

My friend told me that an expert that lives near him was bugging him to take chess lessons from him.  After a while, my friend told me that he accepted the expert’s offer.  My friend was interested in improving his chess, and money was not an issue, so he decided to take the lessons.

The expert, who had a very different playing style, taught my friend how to convert subtle advantages in endgames, new strategies that my friend never knew about, and various positional elements.  He recommended books such as “How to Reassess Your Chess”, which my friend spent a lot of time and energy reading.

As you would expect, all of learning and this hard work payed off for my friend, and he felt as if he knew more about chess than ever before…

He spent a lot of time, energy and money on the lessons…



This chart, taken from the USCF rating page shows my friend’s rating plunge from near 1700 all the way down to his rating floor as a result of these lessons!

I don’t want to give my friend’s name, because I don’t want to embarrass anyone, especially the chess teacher.

So how can this happen?  How can you take lessons from a better player, read and learn about chess from popular books by famous International masters, and have your rating go down?

Just about any activity that I have tried, and taken lessons or classes or coaching, I got better as a result.

I have taken golf lessons, and they improved my golf score.

I have taken technical computer courses, and learned valuable skills that I later applied.

I have studied public speaking, and became better at it.

So why is my friend’s story so common, and counter intuitive?

It is because Chess KNOWLEDGE is not the same as Chess ABILITY.

It reminds me of this scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark:

In the scene Indiana Jones comes across some sort of ninja warrior with amazing skills with the sword.  The ninja tosses his knife back and forth, and dances around displaying his abilities.

This ninja probably spent his entire life to become the best sword fighter in his country.  He probably spent years meditating, building his physical strength, honing his hand-eye coordination.  Years practicing various skills using the sword in both a defensive and offensive manner.  A lifetime of learning.

Then Indiana Jones pulls out a gun and shoots him!

The scene is brilliant.  You expect Indiana Jones to get into some sort of typical movie fight, with all sorts of fancy tricks, but he just does the practical thing, and shoots the ninja.

This scene reminds me of chess, and how games are being won and lost at the class level.

This teacher was showing my friends all of the advances techniques that Grandmasters use to exploit microscopic advantages.  Then my friend would show up at a chess tournament, and get crushed.

My friend was bringing a knife to a gun fight!

Games at the class level are decided by TACTICS.  Just about NOTHING else.  While my friend was learning all these interesting things, he was NOT studying chess tactics. 

His focused changed from “Hey is my piece safe here” to “What is a good outpost square for my knight”. 

His focuses changed from “What pieces are loose” to “Whose pawn structure is more favorable in the endgame”.

As a result his rating tanked.

That is why I don’t focus on chess KNOWLEDGE, but chess ABILITY. 

It is no good to learn anything unless it causes you to win more games.

Don’t be the ninja with a ton of useless knowledge – be Indiana Jones who wins in the most efficient manner!

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6 thoughts on “Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight

  1. Your friend was being taught concepts suited to a much stronger player, someone rated 1900+ who already had a very good grasp of tactics and some knowledge of positional play. Players below 1900 should focus mostly on tactics with some endgame study, and maybe an opening or two for each color. Once their rating climbs and they can keep it at the high class A level, they are ready to expand their knowledge to advance their ability. That’s what I think… :)

  2. Dear Timmy!

    As I do not know your friend (as well as a teacher), I can just making some suggestions (guessing?!).

    1) chess KNOWLEDGE is not the same as chess ABILITY. It might be even the opposite! Nevertheless without ability your knowledge means “nothing” (in a practical way)

    2) when your tactics is poor, you will not be able to play any reasonable game just because your army will be reduces as the game progress. That means you HAVE to “fill in” your tactics up to the level it is sufficient. You cannot drop (blunder) any pieces and conciously do not see simple threats and tactical motifs.

    3) “Games at the class level are decided by TACTICS. Just about NOTHING else” – I cannot agree on that. It is true that tactics is much more important as most amateurs think, but at some level (I think: being rated 1600-1700) it is absolutelly necessary to know how to make a plan, how to attack, defend and what kind of pieces (endgames) favour one side or the other.

    4) At first – the rating (or level) SHOULD drop some (less or more) if you are trying to use NEW concepts tried never before. It depends on many factor how fast the rating “back to normal” and when it breaks into “new level”. I have observed that strange process many times (not only at chess). For example: let’s say I am 1700 rating player. When I am learning some NEW stuff to me and trying to test new way of thinking and playing… my game should make some regress! I might be 1600-1630 for some (rather short) time and after that I have to back to “starting” rating (1700), and after this “come back”, the rating (level) should be higher (like 1750-1800).

    5) If the player’s rating do not come back to the original ones (“starting”) in a short period of time (mostly no more than 2-3 weeks or a month) it might means that something strange is going on. From my own experience I have seen many times that when my rating drops without reasonable reasons (I mean – when I am playing my best, being focused, motivated to play great game, etc.) then… it might means – the “new” (higher) level is very close to me. That process has repeated many times and now I can just accept it, because I understand what is going on.

    The example with “ninja vs one shot man” is AMAZING! It shows excatly why stronger players are very often killing us… with great ease! The material should be practical and important at OUR level of playing and understanding!
    Without proper tactics (you can see that when you analyse your game with the help of stronger player – especially with the point of finding tactical holes) you will NOT be able to hold your position against players who knows how to attack or even sacrifice (not always correct!). That is the reason why you HAVE TO make tactics “clear” and automated: no matter if you are playing better or worse position (opponent).

    Thanks for inspiring article!

    • Thanks Tomasz for the great comment!

      Just to clarify – I think that things like openings, pawn structures, planning, strategy, time management, etc are all valuable things to know, and it is good to be able to do them well.

      It is just that they are not what is determining who wins or loses games in a lot of cases.

      Most class players (probably below 1800-1700) are not winning games because they made a better plan than their opponent. This does sometimes happen, but is the “exception” rather than the “rule”.

      Most class players are not grinding out wins by grabbing a gambit pawn in the opening, trading down, and then converting this small advantage all the way to an endgame, where they win by using triangulation correctly.

      Most class players are not winning games because they correctly applied the positional considerations needed for a isolated queen pawn.

      Most of these games, even ones played at very slow time controls, like correspondence, are being won and lost by very primitive means – kind of like Indiana Jones just pulling out a gun and shooting it. One to two move tactics.

      The game might be even for 20-30 moves, where each player goes back and forth, then player A blunders. Player B hopefully sees it, and the game ends soon after. If the Player B misses this opportunity, then this cycle repeats.

      So the things my friend was learning, were probably useful, once you get to the point where you and your opponent are not losing and winning games by these primitive means (at the level the teacher was at, around 2100-2200), but were not appropriate for how to win games at the 1500-1700 range my friend was at.

      I agree too that some regression is normal anytime you try something new, but losing 150 points (and probably would have been more if not for USCF rating floors) is WAY too much!

      Thanks again for always making great comments!!


  3. Timmy!

    Thanks for very fast reply! :)

    It is always nice to see such a great comment!
    What can I add?

    “…at the point where you and your opponent are not losing and winning games by these primitive means” – I want to underline the phrase “primitive means”, that is very important (it is in most cases no sooner than reaching rating 1850-1900) to play “clear” (no dropping material or bludering).

    I think your friend might suffer at relatively weak tactics and recognizing tactical threats (like mentioned before): and that way his powerful knowledge and understanding how to exploit small advantage might not be useful.

    Maybe you are right at losing TOO much rating points, but I would rather see what is his (your friend’s) play weaknesses. If he does not see (or more precisely: cannot recognize) many various tactical threats (like pins, skewers, mate patterns, double attacks, etc.) he would be outplayed not just by the stronger players, but more aggressive ones. I have seen it many times: there is one player (A) who posses great positional knowledge (but suffers at tactics much!) and his opponent (B), who is really agressive tactician (but not having any positional knowledge except these that help to construct tactical mess). Guess what will be the score after playing 20 games each other. I bet it end with a score 14-6 or 16-4 in a favour of “tactician” (B) player! Wanna bet? ;) :)

    Best regards – Tom
    PS. I am reading your great blog and enjoy it very much. When there is an interesting topic that I might contribute my few comments I am really grateful to do that! It is amazing valuable to me – being able to express my chess opinion and sharing experience or knowledge! Keep the great work going!

    • Thanks again Tomasz!

      I kind of wish that I could interview my friend on a podcast or something, because it is an interesting story.

      He told me that the main problem was that his thinking process changed. He was talking about how the brain can only look at so many things at one time, so he became obsessed with these “positional” type ideas that his teacher and books like Jeremy Silman’s were teaching.

      So he would be thinking about the “right plan”, but was not thinking about the simple tactics in the position.

      Once my friend stopped this teacher’s plan, his rating started to go back up.

      so to me the main lessons were:

      1) More chess knowledge does not necessarily make you a better player
      2) More chess knowledge can actually make you play WORSE (which is completely counter intuitive)
      3) If you do attempt to add more chess knowledge, make sure it doesn’t take the place of the basics – which are chess tactics
      4) Just because a person is a strong player (2000+ rating) does not mean that they will be a good teacher, or able to help your rating go up. In fact I would recommend asking “What kind of rating gains have your students have” (not, “what have they learned”). If the answer is “Well my last student lost 150 rating points”, I would keep looking :-)

      Thanks again for the nice comments!

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