The tasks of a chess trainer


Recently I have felt compelled to consider what the properties of the ideal chess trainer should be. Obviously there are a few different types of chess trainers, each with their own function. Let’s have a look at them:

a) the junior trainer

This starts with teaching children the rules, notation and so on, then goes on to teaching them basic strategic concepts, such as development, king safety, the value of the pieces.

The junior trainer will often go through games with a group of children, discussing ideas, telling them when to look out for simple opportunities and so on.

The junior trainer will in most cases be a much stronger player than the children, even though he might not appear to the readers of this blog to be a very strong player. After decades in this game we tend to forget how difficult it was to understand even the most basic things in the beginning.

In my opinion, the junior trainer’s two most important tasks are to keep the juniors interested and to guide them towards good training material when they are ready. But in the beginning, the best training material is probably playing lots of games. The difficult thing is to understand when the juniors are ready for more.

b) the talent trainer

In this phase of the talent’s development the trainer is likely to still be a stronger player, at least for a part of the process. He is able to show the talent a lot of ideas and typical patterns, structures, combinations and so on. At the same time he will also be able to help the talent prepare for games, analyse his games with him and choose what books he needs to read, which types of exercises he should solve and so on.

This is the standard trainer you can find online.

c) the second

Once a player reaches a certain level he will start to play in tense competitive situations. This can be national championships, international championships or even matches.

I think most players over 2400 would benefit a lot from a second, but with the low amount of money in prizes at “normal” tournaments, only players at the top or participants in junior championships usually have access to a second.

Personally I have not played many tournaments since 2007 without a second. In only a few cases my second (for the last few years Nikos Ntirlis) has not been at the location with me, but assisted me over Skype from Greece.

The two jobs of a second are:

c1) to help the player choose a good opening and come up with some concrete suggestions and advice in that direction.

c2) to be on the player’s side. This is usually not fully understood by most people. Since we are flock animals, trying to do something on your own is usually doomed to fail. The only reason this works in chess tournaments is because everyone is doing it like this! In 2007 I won the British Championship (one shot – one kill) and no doubt benefitted greatly from John Shaw’s advice over the phone, especially for game five (against Nick Pert), and for Brian McClement serving dinner in the caravan for his son and me.

d) the grandmaster trainer

The final category is the one I have moved into over the last decade, by natural progression.

In 2006 I started working with Sabino Brunello. He was rated 2400 and had just fulfilled the requirements for the International Master title. Our relationship was at the time quite similar to b) above. I still had a number of things I could teach him. For example, I realized that his strengths did not fit well with his 1.e4 repertoire and I encouraged him to learn 1.d4 and use it at an opportune moment where the surprise would come in handy (see the game below).

Now Sabino is a very clever boy and quickly I had to move on to becoming a grandmaster trainer. Rather than explaining things to him, as a superior, we were equals. He understood prophylactic thinking; calculation techniques, how to use the three questions effectively when stuck, how to readjust during a game if things went the wrong (or right!) way.

There were some serious limitations to our working relationship. Basically, he lives in Italy and I for some reason chose to leave my native country for one of the wettest parts of the UK. We used Skype, but there were a lot of things I would have been able to do with him had I been there. For example: it made little sense to analyse his games together and reading his body language was hard. To a great extent I became a feeder: a supplier of the right exercises. In great quantities.

This developed some great strength; but also set certain limitations. Solving exercises is a big part of improvement in chess, but it is only one part. In early 2013 our work stopped. It simply did not make sense to focus only on this aspect of chess training and it was time to focus on other things.

At the moment Sabino has a rating of 2617.

When I have the chance to work one on one with a student, at best in their physical presence, observing them is at least half the job. I might read from their body language, or simply their time consumption, where they feel shaky and what areas they need to focus more on. Then we go deeper in that direction, explore it more. This could for example be Bending, which I wrote about recently.

In this scenario, you are no longer a chess teacher, you are a chess trainer.


I could go on about this at great length, but I have promised you a game and I have other things to do as well…

Sabino Brunello (2484) – Fabiano Caruana (2594)

The 67th Italian Championship, Martina Franca 2007


1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Qb3 e6 5.Bg5 Nbd7 6.Nc3 Be7 7.e3 0–0 8.Rc1 a6 9.cxd5 cxd5 10.Bd3 b5 11.0–0 Bb7 12.a4 b4 13.Ne2 Bd6 14.Bf4 Bxf4 15.Nxf4 Qb6 16.Rc2 Rfc8 17.Rfc1 a5 18.Bb5 Rxc2 19.Rxc2 Rc8 20.Nd3 Rc7 21.Nfe5 Nxe5 22.Nxe5 Bc8 23.f3 g6 24.Qd3 Kg7 25.Qd1 Bd7 26.Bxd7 Nxd7 27.Nxd7 Rxd7 28.Qc1 Qa6 29.Kf2 Qd6 30.g3 Re7 31.Rc8 Qa6 32.Qc5 h5 33.Rc6 Qa8 34.b3 h4 35.gxh4 Re8 36.Qd6 Rc8 37.Rc5 Qb7 38.Rxa5 Rc2+ 39.Kg3 Rc3 40.Rc5 Qa8 41.Qe5+ f6 42.Qxe6 Qb8+ 43.Kh3 Rxc5 44.dxc5 d4 45.Qd7+ Kh6 46.Qxd4 Qc8+ 47.Kg3 Qe6 48.Qxb4 1–0

Despite this loss, Caruana scored 9½/11 and won the title…


4 thoughts on “The tasks of a chess trainer”

  1. Very astonishing is the missing reaction to this post to me. I have some ideas why nobody had some ideas. The main point: Training on IM to GM level is a very rare experience for the audience here.

    Personally I’m preparing for retirement and restarting youth training. This demands deeper understanding of the principles and tactics. So training others may help you getting better, which is nothing new.

    1. Jacob Aagaard

      Not ignored on purpose. I try to comment on the posts where it makes sense. At times I see people’s comments as statement and I do not want to behave like a school teacher, giving feedback on everything; I see myself more as someone who both shares his own points of view and who tries to keep the discussions flowing. So, the better the comments, the less interference from me :-).

  2. I think Jupp35 meant the low number of reactions to your post Jacob, not the missing reply on the schedule question :).

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