Do you need a computer for chess training?

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Young Bobby Fischer

As technology improves the question we must ask is “Do you need a computer for chess training?”

Computer chess programs have become exceptionally strong in the 21st century, capable of thoroughly dominating the world’s best human players.  There is no question of the extent to which computers have changed the game of chess in the last 20 years, not only raising the quality of play but making chess training more effective and efficient. 

Bobby Fischer broke a record in 1958 by attaining the grandmaster title at the age of 15.  To date, this record has been broken over 20 times – the current title-holder is Sergey Karjakin of Russia, who became a GM at the age of 12 in 2002.  Since the introduction of a strong computer for chess in the 1990s chess has seen a complete revolution on all fronts.

The Good: Effective and Efficient

While Bobby Fischer taught himself how to read Russian so that he could study up on his Soviet counterparts, information in the 21st century is one click of a mouse away.  When Informant came out in 1966, it was a major step in the evolution of chess but the buck did not stop there.  In 2011:  games databases, free instructional chess videos and articles, and free software/analytical engines are readily available. 

There are a plethora of Free Tools that are ridiculously accessible to anyone with an internet connection ( – – – If a chess student understands how to manipulate these resources the right way, he/she is capable of covering a lot more ground than someone 20 years ago (hence the rise of the 12 yr-old GMs).

The Bad and the Ugly: Abusing the Machine

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Sergey Karjakin became a GM at 12 years old

I’m rated about 2200 and have been teaching chess on and off for almost 10 years.  I have read many chess books and frequently utilized games databases – but have very rarely used a chess engine for anything more than a quick check of a really complicated line/game, and even that is a stretch.  There a few reasons, but mainly I prefer to do the work myself – to thoroughly raise my understanding of the game is more important to me than trying to figure out the qualitative significance of white is +.67 in a given position. 

While at its core, chess is essentially a question of mathematics (there are 10 to the 40th possible outcomes) – improvement in chess is achieved through hard, meaningful work.  While teaching chess for nearly the last decade, many of my students (children and adults) have come to me asking about how to use the latest version of fritz. 

My aforementioned lack of experience with chess engines has automatically disqualified me from providing an informed answer, but my perspective remains the same – you will learn more and increase your deep understanding of the game by doing the work yourself.  Chess is not about memorizing your lines – it’s about understanding.

Research with Grandmasters

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In the last few months, I have interviewed over 40 chess Grandmasters for the ongoing series “How to Become a Grandmaster”.  A variety of topics have been covered, and I was sure to inquire about their opinion on the use of computers in chess training. 

Obviously there are a variety of ways to use computers in chess (games databases, tactical training tools, internet blitz games, chess engines, etc…) – but I wanted to know what, when, and how GMs utilized these tools on their path to success. 

Games databases received an excellent score, with a recommendation to focus more on quality than quantity.  Most GMs stated that extreme opening preparation can wait until a player is approaching the 2200-2300 mark.  Tactical training tools are extremely easy and efficient to use, and should be consumed as part of a daily routine for players of all skill levels.  Internet blitz ranked well, but special attention should be given not to over-do it. 

The use of chess engines is a complicated topic, but nearly all of the GMs I interviewed recommended players to stay away from chess engines until reaching a very advanced level.  The reason is that the use of chess engines for the beginner to intermediate player is generally a waste of time. 

Most players will scan through the variations at light speed without actually comprehending what they are looking at.  My advice for the average club player is to stick to the simple tools that you understand well, and only consult the chess engine as a last resort.