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On Chess: Through coaching, elite college players overcome flaws

Members of the Saint Louis University Chess Team
Steve Dolan |Saint Louis University
Members of the Saint Louis University Chess Team receive rigorous training to develop into elite players.

Working on chess at higher levels is definitely a different experience than when you first experience the magic of the sport. The leaps and bounds that a beginner can make are quickly rewarded. Learning simple concepts such as common checkmating patterns, tactical devices, even the relative value of pieces, is enough to propel someone to be a solid participant at the club level.

After reaching that level, an ambitious player might work on openings, strategy, sharpen tactics and learn the fundamental endgames. Again, the fruits of this labor are readily seen — previously lost endgames will be saved, positions in which a player had little idea of how to approach now make sense. However, as one climbs the rating ladder, everything, in some way, becomes both clearer and murkier.

The clarity that strong players enjoy when approaching certain positions is the marked difference between the master level and the rest. It is that recognition on what needs to be done, and what to look for.

A grandmaster accumulates millions of patterns that he can recall in his mind to compare and contrast with the situation; he can accurately and precisely calculate many moves ahead. Furthermore, he has the knowledge of thousands of endgames that he knows are beneficial for him, or that he needs to avoid. He is familiar with many pawn structures to the point where he can easily identify the opening of the game, even if he is only shown one position well past the middle game.

The grandmaster has the psychological experience of playing under many situations, different stress levels, and for different stakes. So then, what does a grandmaster work on all day?

This is a fundamental question for me as coach of the Saint Louis University chess team. Our team boasts five grandmasters and an international master — already among the best of the best. Working with them has allowed me insight into how different chess players really are. Despite the fact that some of the players on the team are very similar in rating, age, and even chess background, they come to the game with unique perspectives, influenced deeply by what they have chosen to work on, past experiences and to a large extent, their personalities. As their coach, it is imperative to understand what the players can easily overcome by sheer talent, and what they struggle with over the board.

I’ve learned that while some players love studying openings, they might have left their tactics and understanding relegated. Some players love studying the classics, and have developed a deep positional style, while their openings and tactics have been suffering.

To the untrained eye, it seems that they are just approaching the position “the way a grandmaster would,” and, truth be told, the differences at this level are very slim. However, a deeper inspection can reveal the flaws of a player, even at this level, and the ability to work on it deeply, with individual and group training as I do with the SLU students, can be the difference between their current strength and the next stepping stone.

The best chess university programs in America have hired world-class coaching, players with experience both on the board and helping fellow grandmasters as their seconds in tournaments, world championship matches, and many others. That experience is what we use to tailor help for our students, and every year it is an interesting clash of months of work that we see at collegiate tournaments.

Alejandro Ramirez earned his grandmaster title by the age of 15. That achievement set Ramirez as the first Centro-American to earn the elite title. Ramirez is the new coach of the Saint Louis University Chess Team and a regular live broadcast commentator, in English and Spanish, for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.