Playing chess with grandmasters

August 28, 2021

From CJS Purdy’s Fine Art of Chess Annotation and Other Thoughts, volume 1:

The one infallible way to improve is by practice, but I don’t mean just playing chess. That is certainly helpful, provided you record your games and go through them afterwards trying to run your mistakes to earth — still more if, in addition, you have a coach to go through them with you a third time. If by any chance you can afford coaching, this is by far the most valuable kind; other kinds of coaching can be gotten from books, and far more cheaply.

But by practice I mean playing against champions — any master will gladly play you at any time of the day or night, and, moreover, bring along two other masters to help you out. They don’t ask for fees or even refreshments; as a matter of fact, they may all be ghosts from the last century, but they will play none the worse for that.

The masters who are there to help you do not interfere much. They leave you to study the position for yourself. When you make your move, however, one of them says, to your great delight, “Yes, just what I’d have done.” Or — more often than not if you are a beginner — he will say politely, “No doubt an excellent move — I had in mind Rook to e2, but still…”

That is all this man will ever say, but you must immediately retract your own move and play his; these chaps are very touchy, underneath their old-world courtesy.

You are allowed to ask what is wrong with your move, but you must ask the third man. Sometimes he will merely give an enigmatic smile and suggest that your evident skill is quite equal to the task of working out the answer. At other times he will be much more helpful, and give you quite a lecture on the position. Sometimes he will say in a whisper, so that his crony will not hear, “As a matter of fact, old chap, your move is just as good” - or even, “Well to be quite candid, my highly talented friend has made an oversight.”

And so the game proceeds. Your man will never lose the game for you, though he may be held to a draw. At the game’s conclusion your benefactors will vanish, but you can instantly summon three more by the simple process of turning a page.

I have simply described exactly what happens when you play over a game between a couple of champions, covering the winner’s moves with a card until you have worked out what you would play at each point. You must never look first. Your third visitor — the one who is alternately garrulous and enigmatically silent — is, of course, the annotator.

What is the superiority of this form of practice over a regular game with Smith? Obviously this: that Smith and you have nobody to point out your mistakes. You and Smith will go on making the same sort of mistakes year after year, while the student player is continually raising himself nearer to the level of his ghostly visitors.

It is true that a beginner would get on still better if the annotator would turn on more garrulity and less silence. But space limitations prevent that. However, what does it matter if some moves in a game completely baffle you? If you do understand many of them, you have learned something, and gradually a smaller and smaller percentage will baffle you.

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