Tuesday 23 December 2008

Can coaching harm your chess?

One evening during the Olympiad, I was having dinner with various people connected with the Bermuda team. The guests included GM Nick DeFirmian (Bermuda Captain), Nick Faulks (Bermuda Board 1), Nigel Freeman (FIDE Treasurer) and Graham Hillyard (former editor at Batsford). At some point the discussion got around to coaching, and the effect it can have on your chess.
To be absolutely clear, this discussion was about being a chess coach, not receiving coaching. The theory being proposed (by whom I cannot remember) was that when you explain chess to a student you aim for 'perfection' in any position, ignoring the fact that finding chess moves is often a very practical task. Therefore when you spend too much time coaching (and not as much time playing) you try and find 'perfect' moves in your own position, rather than very good ones. And as such a task is often impossible in the time you have available to you, your chess suffers due to both indecision, and possibly time trouble.
Now I don't know whether this is entirely true, as I have learned a great deal simply by preparing lessons for my students (pawn play being an example), but I have certainly seen players results and style change after they have become chess coaches. Previously I would have attributed this to a simple lack of practice (ie teaching others rather than playing yourself) , but it may be more complex than that.
As an example here is a position from my Round 5 game against Bill Hook of the British Virgin Islands. If you were a chess coach, and one of your students played this game, would you regard the idea of meeting 13.c4 with 13. ... bxc4 14.Bxc4 Bxf3 as playable, or would you suggest something else, including not getting into this position in the first place?


Anonymous said...


There are 2 effects I can think about. Firstly, when you start coaching it normally implies you are playing less chess. In that sense it is no different to the situation when one starts working. I can think about at least 2 top aussie players whose chess strength dropped noticebly in the last 1-2 years because they started working.

The second effect is to look at the effect of coaching because of the direct influence of coaching on your play, the one that you described above.

Somehow, I think the second effect even if exists is just much smaller in comparison to the first effect.


Shaun Press said...

This would have been my interpretation as well (more work = less chess), but I wonder if someone like Ian Rogers noticed a change in his play as he began to train other players.

Anonymous said...

Yes, perfectly playable but, looking at the continuation, I'd want to know why White played g2xf3 (instead of Qb3xf3) and why Black then captured on d4 (instead of Nb8-c6).

Incidentally, coaching can result in a big increase in one's own playing strength. I stopped playing ca.1978, spent two years (1988-1990) coaching and was a far, far better player when I started playing again (1991-1993). Why? Difficult to be precise but basically because I had begun to understand chess (just a little); I probably spent as much time researching what coaching was about as actually doing it.

As a general rule, neither I nor the kids (under-11s*) I coached were looking for perfect moves, just (1) avoiding losing and (2) making the pieces work as a team.

*It was in a region with no real chess tradition but in less than two years the teams went from zero to 1st (under 9s) and 3rd (under 11s) in the national (UK) rankings and several individuals went on to gain IM/GM titles.

Kevin O'Connell

Shaun Press said...

I'm not sure why he chose gxf3 rather than Qxf3. He went into a big think over this move (40 minutes or so) and possibly saw the same things that I saw, which look scary, but on further inspection may not be. eg Qxf3 Qxd4 Bxf7+! is the line he should have played as after Rxf7 the knight on b8 hangs in most lines.
As for why I played Qxd4 rather than Nc6, the answer is far simpler. I chose the first 'good' move I saw, rather than the best move. This habit is one of my main reasons for losing games (especially in Dresden).
Like you I found that coaching seemed to increase my knowledge, although the stronger the student, the more I learnt myself.
btw It's a pleasure to hear from you Kevin, as my chess library contains some of the books you have authored.