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Chess master Lev Alburt teaches strategy, patience, and prognostication (bloomberg.com)
98 points by funkylexoo on Oct 29, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 32 comments

Is a chess coach like Lev Alburt worth the money to someone who does play chess at a professional level? Does a world class coach make a big difference when we're talking about amateur chess players?

Obviously, there are other reasons to go to a guy like Lev for lessons (the conversation, social cache etc.), I'm just curious as an amateur chess player if seeking someone out like Lev would make a notable difference in my game as compared to a more average chess coach.

Assuming your goal is to be a better chess player (reaching expert/master level or up), the answer is no. Grandmasters typically charge exorbitant price (at least $50/hour, I recall that Lev can charge $300/hour), but the main problem is that unless they have so much experience teaching chess, they won't understand why amateurs struggle at certain positions (since they get such idea effortlessly). The rule of thumb for choosing a coach is picking someone about 400 points higher than you (either USCF or FIDE works), who has gone through similar struggles and practices to get to that level. Honestly, getting GM coach only worths the money when you are 2200 and up.

Disclaimer: never have a personal coach before. Did play for a while in a chess club where the team leader is about 2200 FIDE.

> Grandmasters typically charge exorbitant price (at least $50/hour, I recall that Lev can charge $300/hour)

Sorry, I'm rather confused. How are these prices exorbitant for professional coaching? I can't imagine you can get a tennis coach for your kid for less than $50 per hour.

This is sound advice. I did have chess coaches when younger. I reached 2100 at 17 but stopped playing shortly after to focus on school and other things (competitive chess play and study is extremely time consuming). Even when I was 1900ish my coach was only about 100-200 points stronger than me, but it worked out great. It's all about getting you yourself to put in the work. To identify your weaknesses and shore them up. Think of it like a personal trainer. Getting an old GM as a coach would be like getting Arnold Swarzenegger as your person trainer.

How is $50/hr exorbitant? Lots of people on HN charge more than that for software development, which (at least to my mind) is substantially easier than being a chess grandmaster.

Sorry slightly off topic, how does one get their chess level measured? Thanks

You get an initial rating by playing a number of tournament games against rated opponents.

The results of every rated game (played at tournaments etc) are reported to a rating body. Back when I played (low level) competitively, rating lists were published every couple of months in paper form; nowadays it's all online, of course.

>The results of every rated game (played at tournaments etc) are reported to a rating body

Sounds like another instance of centralization that must be disrupted by the blockchain

You can chess go on lichess.com and get a rating by playing games

If you’ve ever heard of the ELO ranking system it was developed for ranking chess players, and predicting the outcome of matches.

The system has been tweaked over the years as there small statistical oddities.

But official ranks are determined after playing 10-25 games in “official” tournaments.


Off topic - an interesting observation by economist Tyler Cowen in his book "Average is Over".

Tyler talks a lot about the role of computers that can surpass humans in various tasks, and looks at chess as an example (he was a highly-ranked Chess player when he was younger). He also talks a lot about education, especially with regards to the government's role in it.

He at some point mentions that chess players have gotten much better over the last 20 years, with the rise of chess-playing and chess-analyzing computer programs. He looks at this as an interesting natural experiment in an area of education that is highly optimized, and sees what a huge impact education-via-computers has had (as contrasted with usually a government-run classical educational establishment). I don't even remember his conclusion, but I though the anecdote was fascinating.

I highly recommend the book, btw.

Chess players have got better as measured by the number of moves the computer agrees with, which you'd expect, because they're preparing 30 moves in the opening and learning positions from tablebases that were historically thought to be drawn or lost etc. I'd need more convincing that we can measure skill timelessly. Also the money's at the super grandmaster scale seems pretty good these days.

That said, the fact that you've been able to play stronger and stronger players on your computer and in your pocket over the last 20 years must have made a difference.

There is a massive difference in the role of coaches for high level players and lower or mid level players. The key to improving at chess for lower level players, and the very thing that means almost none do to any significant degree, is lots and lots of work that isn't necessarily that exciting. For instance tactical exercises where you analyze a position and determine a winning (or drawing) sequence are absolutely critical. Every very strong player is going to have done tens of thousands of these exercises. Even Kasparov at his peak would regularly solve studies each morning with his breakfast.

There are many sites for doing this work online including lichess.org, chess.com, and then specialized sites like chess.emrald.net, chesstempo.com, and others. However, in my opinion they are also mostly useless. The reason is that interactive solving creates a practically irresistible urge to just try your move once you find one that looks correct. In general in tactical problems, stronger players are going to be able to reduce a position down to one or two "candidate moves" (moves that might be the 'right' move) and so the odds of success by guessing are incredibly high. In poorly designed tactical problems, as many of these sites host, it's sometimes the case that there's only one real candidate move - or that all of the candidate moves are good.

Those sites also suffer from the problem in that the defense offered is often weak. They generally use computers to solve the problems. So imagine we have a position where you make one kind of obvious sacrifice to initiate a tactical combination. The computer sees that if accepts the sacrifice then it gets mated in 7 moves after a series of highly complex follow ups. So instead it gives away its queen on the first move to stave off immediate mate, and the problem is "solved." That's quite ridiculous.

The real key to tactics is to work them out in your head, in entirety with all possible defenses, and the and only then finally commit. Only sites are currently just not very good for this.

Aside from the unwillingness to do the actual work for improvement (tactics alone can take players practically all the way to FM strength, which is about 2300 ELO) there's another big issue. Players are obsessed with openings. A datum I read once indicated that more books had been written about chess than any other sport or game, and I'd estimate 95% of those books are going to be books on openings targeting beginner to intermediate players. Openings are mostly irrelevant in chess. If a stronger player plays 1. a4 (a completely awful opening) against a player just 100 points below him, he's still going to be a clear favorite. Nonetheless players spend their time obsessing over openings. The reason is because unlike tactics, it "feels", like you're learning something.

Chess improvement is very weird. It's often a star step inside of an upward slope. What I mean is that you hit a level, get stuck there, study for months, see no improvement. Then you wake up one day, and are suddenly 200 points stronger. It's surreal. You can even see this in players like Magnus Carlsen. In April 2004, at the peak of his 'wunderkind' developmental acceleration period, Magnus was 2552. More than a year later in July 2005, he was 2528. 15 months of doing nothing but seeing your rating do nothing but decline? Nope, you haven't hit your plateau or some level you magically can't get beyond because of your IQ (a common excuse) or anything even close to it. That's just chess improvement for you.

Chess openings by contrast enable players to feel like they're learning. You'll, on occasion, even be able to win an entire game without ever leaving your preparation. But the paradox there is that it will generally have minimal to no effect on your overall rating or performance.


As for high level players, most of what I just said is completely different. Since this post is already getting too long, I'll try to keep it short. Very strong players capable of converting very small edges. And so things like incredible nuance and openings start to play a very major part of the game. And so the role of a coach, or second, for a professional player is very much different than it is for a lower rated player. It's kind of the difference of a grade school teacher compared to a post-grad research partner. And you'll often find very strong players taking on much weaker seconds. It's not so much about their skill, but their knowledge and ability to discover new knowledge.

Worth reading Josh Waitzkin, and also listening to pod casts with Tim Ferris.

This article mentions Josh's advice on end games teaching principles: http://chessimprover.com/spending-more-time-on-endgames/

I love all of Waitzkin's stuff, I've spent many hours under his tutelage via Chessmaster, and I've followed his subsequent career with interest. But am I correct in remembering that his fundamental disillusionment with chess came when he had to start learning positionally and strategically instead of tactically? I do agree that people should spend vastly more time on endgames, certainly more than they do on openings, but I'd always thought of him as a buccaneering, tactical player, and that colours a lot of his advice.

Hard to tell. One thing I would like is being able to ask someone why the hell Stockfish is making some move when analyzing my games, but on the other hand I tend to be a rather self drive player.

Probably Lev is only useful for talented kids who someday might be professionals. Today's style of chess at the top level is so far removed from what Alburt played in his heyday that he would be crushed if he tried to compete with a top 50 grandmaster. (Generally only the best of the best players in the world earn a living from playing professionally)

> Is a chess coach like Lev Alburt worth the money to someone who does play chess at a professional level?

IMO, the reality is that most professional chess players turn to coaching once their chances of making a living through being a professional player has disappeared. AFAIK, you're unlikely to find anyone ranked in the top 50 or 100 in the world who coaches (https://ratings.fide.com/top.phtml?list=men). Sam Shankland may be a notable exception on that front. Most coaches tend to be older, at least 40 years old, since that's usually long past when most people's ratings peak.

With the proliferation of chess engines and cheap computing power (see how a chess engine running on a smartphone can consistently outplay the world champion), even many professional players have given up the need to have other players who serve as assistants ("seconds" they're called). Famously, Hikaru Nakamura, currently #10 in the world, has Kris Littlejohn, who's rated ~700 points lower and is not a master, as a second. He relies more on Littlejohn's facility with chess engines and software to prepare for opponents and analyze lines than any human chess analytical ability.

That said, it's still the case that for major matches, like the Candidates or World Championship matches, players still tend to bring multiple seconds/assistants with them as prepare for their upcoming opponents.

> Does a world class coach make a big difference when we're talking about amateur chess players?

Something to realize is that there is no special sauce to becoming a stronger chess player. Someone who's rated below 1600-1800 is likely to be making relatively fundamental tactical and positional errors in all stages of their game. At that level, any coach who's a stronger player is likely to be able to point out and explain these errors to you.

When I was a top ranked junior, I had a variety of coaches, ranging from 2100 up to international master (~2400) strength. I can tell you that the best coach was not necessarily the highest rated player. Having someone who was a good motivator, and could suggest reasonable ways to improve was far more important than having a coach who was the strongest over-the-board player.

At this point, Lev Alburt himself has not played seriously in competitions in many years (https://ratings.fide.com/hist.phtml?event=2000156). It's definitely possible that he's a better trainer than his own ratings suggests, but IMO at least some of his ability to command the rates he does is a result of marketing and the 'social cache' you mention. There seems to be an unfortunate association of chess ability with trading ability or general intelligence in the financial world, if not in the broader world. Lev is simply cashing in.

Yes. I would definitely recommend it, as from my personal experience having an experienced grandmaster as a chess coach does help significantly. It's been a while since I've been active, but I became 2300 USCF pretty quickly after taking regular lessons. My coach provided me with many invaluable insights and guidance that a more average chess coach would likely not have had.

Yes. As someone who has a rating of above 2300 USCF (although inactive for a while), I can say a professional Grandmaster chess coach has helped me advance significantly faster. Also Lev Alburt is a great author, and he has a great book about the Benko Gambit from which I've learned many nuances about that opening.

This comment, and the one by bittrex18737, share a lot of similarities..

Both are new accounts with only 1 comment each, both were posted roughly the same time (I can't see the timestamp), both have 5 digits in their usernames, both usernames appear to be throwaways, both mention 2300 USCF, both mention being inactive, and both start with the same terse "Yes." and say roughly the same sentence in roughly the same structure (okay, this is kind of a stretch).

Bots? A chess coach looking to stir up more business? Or maybe it's getting late and I should sleep.

sometimes HN comments goes through and doesn't display. maybe commenter created a new account because he thought his account was blocked?

OK, nice article. I'm a chess player myself and so yes I did make some connections.

However, when I opened the article, I was looking for what those lessons were. At least glimpse of them.

Quotes from OP suggest that the lessons might be about chess problems and ways for solving them, but might also go wider. A diversion for the kind of people for whom $150+ for an hour out of the office is not a major expense.

"Ushering me inside to the small ­one-bedroom apartment, he offers wine, vodka, or water, in that order."


"Many of his clients from the finance world, he says, “have this idea that it’s a good idea to distract themselves from their work.”"

A question I was thinking about this week: Why do some GM's drop in peak performance? It's common to see players have a golden age of performance where they are near unbeatable. But unlike physical sports, GM's don't exactly suffer from physical deterioration do they?

> But unlike physical sports, GM's don't exactly suffer from physical deterioration do they?

The mind is just as physical as anything else.

It's a deeply complex question, but generally speaking most forms of cognition -- including processing speed, working memory, and fluid intelligence -- decline with age beginning in your twenties:


There is a lot of study and memorization involved in playing at the top level (or even the amateur level). Once they lose the will and/or ability to keep up with others, then they'll start declining. In my experience, I see most kids peak around their senior year in high school, where college and other responsibilities start to dominate their time.

I can see why people with analytical minds can play chess well and create good financial models.

I don't think that learning to play chess better helps one create better financial models.

I agree that this claim is false: “If you study chess, then you will be a better trader.”

On the other hand, I do think it’s beneficial to exercise the muscle of strategic thought and quick decision making. Maybe it’s poker instead of chess. But I think the general class of hobby is beneficial.

That's the explanation I often hear that I find suspicious. It's not the same muscle.

Chess is a game with complete information, trading isn't. This is an important distinction, heuristics are very different. Maybe poker is better, but then there is opportunity cost. You can get better results by studying applied statistics or another subject matter area closer to trading.

I was playing chess competitively when I was young and am doing financial models for a living now. I don't think any skill or learning transferred.

Sounds like we have similar backgrounds and careers.

I can’t think of any way of conducting a study to test a hypothesis.

I suppose I would say that, strictly speaking, chess is nothing more than a game of complete information, that has a big search space, filled with interesting corners.

On the other hand, when most non-experts play OTB, much of the thought is psychological — the classic leveling of “what is my opponent trying to do, and thinking I’m trying to do, and therefore trying to do...”

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