Woodpecker Wednesday – guest post by GM Axel Smith

Andrew Greet asked if I would mind answering questions appearing in the comments to his blog posts. However, I see that Andrew has already done that, while also sharing his own experience. Thanks! It’s also nice to see all the readers’ efforts. I hope you have enjoyed all the hours of solving. Just like many of you, I consider the boring part to be checking the solutions. But sometimes it has to be done.

As I am afraid to find silly mistakes, I usually don’t read anything I have written after it’s published. But this time a reader gave the book back to me, with marks to a lot of games. “White and Black have been confused in too many games,” he said. “It’s not possible that the world champions blundered that often.”

But the book is right in this case – these blunders really were played by the elite, even though some of them were in simuls and exhibitions. Doesn’t it feel good to excel over a world champion?

However, one real error was accidentally added during editing: diagrams 11 and 18 are similar, but with the wrong solution to the first. Given the time it took me to solve the replacement exercise (pdf), I guess I need to Woodpecker!

My wife is already on the way. She hasn’t played in two years, but after smelling the new book (always the most important thing to her) she started solving. With limited time available, she skipped the introduction, and several times she asked me questions that definitely are discussed in the book.

“Read the introduction!” was my constant answer.

When she finally did, she saw the first sentence: “So, you want to dive in and start solving without reading any of the introductory text now or even at all? That’s the spirit…”

I had no good answer.

However, the next day she was less talkative when she fell for a red herring. Having some exercises without a tactical solution requires you to be alert. In those cases, it’s sometimes enough to see that the tempting tactic doesn’t work and chose any decent move.

Someone mentioned a Woodpecker app, which is an interesting idea – maybe the Chessable option is a similar idea. Anyway, who knows what format or quality will appeal most to a reader – I did hear about someone buying the book only because the cover image looked nice…

There’s one question that Andrew could not answer: how is it possible to halve the number of days in each cycle? Starting with four weeks, that makes less than a day for the final cycle. Even though speed improves, that much can’t be expected.

Quoting page 26, it’s not obligatory to make it in one day: “The Woodpecker Method has been completed when the full set of exercises has been solved entirely in one day – or after the 7th cycle, if you are unable to solve the full set in a day.”

But it’s also normal to prolong the sessions. Becoming a tactical monster is not done just in the evenings, even though it’s not easy to spend more and more time when we have other things in our lives. Especially not while buying and selling a house at the same time. Maybe that’s why Andrew couldn’t answer the question…

Joking aside, Andrew did a great job and for the sake of the method I hope he performs well in the Olympiad!

40 thoughts on “Woodpecker Wednesday – guest post by GM Axel Smith”

  1. Hello Mr smith,

    There is someting Andrew point out: he’s final day, the seventh cycle, semmed less difficult than your 22h marathon you describe on the book. Probably the exercices was more difficult, but then, the question is why did you choose less challenging exercices ?

  2. I just bought the book on Chessable.
    I have to say though I was quite unpleasantly surprised that this product is significantly more expensive digitally than as a print version. At least once the discount runs out in a few hours. Chessable takes the liberty to display their prices without VAT to EU customers, which a quick Google check confirms is at least very risky business. With VAT on top The Woodpecker Method comes out at ca. 39 EUR, compared to 33 EUR for the hardcover.

  3. @schtroumfechecs
    My last session took 22 hours because it wasn’t part of a proper Woodpecker. Quoting the book: “Before I travelled to Hungary in December 2015 to chase my last GM norm, I solved the same broken book for the 11th and 12th time.”
    The first 10 times was a few years earlier.

    Hans Tikkanen has done Woodpecker with several books, some more difficult than others. That is no big deal. However, he is (of course) happy with the level in our book.

  4. @Andre

    Our intention is that the Chessable course will be the same price as our Quality Chess book. That works fine in the USA, but not over here in Europe yet, due to VAT.

    I know Chessable are working on showing the full price (including VAT if it applies) so that all prices are correct wherever in the world you are. I am no tech expert, but I guess it is not an easy task.

  5. Thanks for your answer, John.
    My experience at Chessable yesterday wasn’t exactly smooth because their site is quite buggy. I ran into no less than 3 “A bugs” (-> fix immediately!) within 10 Minutes after registration. In addition I was surprised by them adding VAT at a later step. So my mood was a bit emotionally loaded. 😉 Actually I was really close to cancelling my order just on principle.
    Let’s split the problems between your companies:
    “Same price as the book”: sounds fair enough. But as it is now … just consider that the price delta will increase when the paperback comes out. And that the costs for “making” further digital copies is zero, after the costs for the conversion have been recouped.
    From a customer perspective this looks bad. If there’s a difference the digital version should be cheaper. At the end of the day it’s of course your decision. “Looking good” is great, but there’s also something to be said about actually making money. 😉
    “Prices without VAT”: If I understand the infos on their site correctly, Chessable are located in the UK. IANAL, but I have a little experience running an online shop a couple of years ago. For 100% accurate infos please consult a lawyer.
    My understanding is that it’s EU law that all prices for end customers (practically!) must include VAT. Or more precisely, a price displayed to an end customer *cannot be misleading*. Adding the VAT later is misleading the customer because he expected to pay less. Some…

  6. Hey, my first post ever to hit the character limit! Here’s the rest:
    … other countries prefer it that way, but the EU decided for clarity (Yeah, I know, it didn’t happen often). If my understanding of the matter is correct, Chessable are completely unprotected against a C&D based on Fair Trade Law by a competitor at this time.
    “Tech stuff”: It’s certainly not easy, but several 100k online shops have done it before. They’ll either solve it or pay somebody to solve it. And hopefuly soon. It was really unwise to put their shop online without fixing this first. Just think about it – can you name a single professional online shop targeting EU end customers which displays prices without the VAT?! I’m not aware of any. Even the digital gaming giant Valve (located in the US) shows prices including VAT to Europeans.
    Not to be misunderstood, I actually have a lot of sympathy for Chessable, and I hope they get everything fixed.

  7. @ Andre:

    Regarding your remark on the price of the Chessable product: I wonder why you are only mentioning the cost side. Of course the costs of a digital copy are basically zero, but it’s also relevant to consider the value added for the customer. Lots of people on this blog are saying that it’s very convenient and almost ‘heaven sent’ – I don’t see why this value shouldn’t be reflected in the price? There are lots of products out there that aren’t sold at cost price and consumers still eagerly buy them.

  8. The costs of digital copies are not zero in production. Actually, quite far from it. Yes, the costs are the same for 500 copies and 50,000 copies. But because the sales are much more likely to be 500 than 50,000, the costs are considerable.

  9. Good point – indeed the fixed costs of this type of business are quite high, and chess is still a niche compared to the latest bestseller of JK Rowling 🙂

  10. Played around with chessable yesterday. I like that it is web-based and it appears to be well done. But the price difference between ForwardChess and Chessable is tremendous, in particular for the Woodpecker. There are lots of additional benefits when it comes to drilling and repetitions compared to FC. But is it worth such a big difference ? On top, the “Pro-version” requires a monthly subscription, additional costs. Customers will decide. I wish them luck, the drilling ideas certainly are very interesting.

  11. Personally I don’t see the added value for Woodpecker. The whole idea of Woodpecker is imo that you repeat the compelte set of exercises several times. FC is perfectly suited to do just that. I think Chessable could be more suitable for drilling your opening repertoire though.

  12. Hi A small question. Does a tick mark on the first move mean an extra point for move 1(like exercise 1079) for still just the same 1 point as always for move 1. I have slogged my way to Ex 1080 on my first cycle. I have until Oct 7 when my 4 weeks expires. Hope to make it to the end of the book. It is a real torture…

  13. I am in my 4th week now of my first cycle. I am 44 years old(yes, considering the speed of a lot of you that is how I feel ;-)), ELO 2050
    At the moment I’ve solved 691 problems in 44 hours. I average about 5 minutes per intermediate problem. I am planning on doing 5 weeks for the 984 problems and then cut it in half each time instead of the suggested 4 weeks for the first cycle.

    I’ve neglected the tactical side of the game for a bit too long the past couple of years and my rating has stagnated (even declined). I noticed that my play became more static and stale and I got a tendency to avoid chaotic situations. What I notice right now after three weeks of solving problems is that I am more willing/less afraid to enter dynamic (but also less clear) situations in chess.
    It sure is a lot of fun!

  14. Andrew

    I know it was a disappointing Olympiad for the Scottish team- especially tough as the English did better than expected!- but how did you feel Woodpecker helped (or not)? Although there were some losses I looked at a few of your games and there aren’t a high number of really obvious tactical blunders- maybe your ability to spot ‘big’ tactics that Woodpecker teaches are spot on but it is the small nuances that you need to build on or maybe you need to plan your openings to feature these tactics rich positions- what’s the opinion from the horse’s mouth?

  15. JB :
    I know it was a disappointing Olympiad for the Scottish team- especially tough as the English did better than expected!- but how did you feel Woodpecker helped (or not)? Although there were some losses I looked at a few of your games and there aren’t a high number of really obvious tactical blunders- maybe your ability to spot ‘big’ tactics that Woodpecker teaches are spot on but it is the small nuances that you need to build on or maybe you need to plan your openings to feature these tactics rich positions- what’s the opinion from the horse’s mouth?

    Especially against Barbados, that was a tough loss.

  16. @Topnotch
    Hardly an expert but it seemed to be endgame losses if there was any theme running through Andrew’s games. Does that mean the Woodpecker worked then but Woodpecker 2 needs to be endgame based?

  17. Apologies if this came over this way but Andrew was quite upfront about woodpecker being a preparation for the olympiad. Wouldn’t target an individual for unnecessary criticism but would like to know if the book you have published is a help or a hindrance from the person who publicly road tested it.

  18. @JB

    Obviously it was a disappointing performance, especially having trained so consistently for eight weeks. It’s hard to draw clear conclusions about the effectiveness of the training: clearly it didn’t propel my playing strength to GM-norm level as I’d hoped; but on the other hand, there are many aspects to a chess game – and as you pointed out, I didn’t make too many tactical mistakes and mostly lost due to other factors.

    I have already given a lot of thought to the biggest mistakes that contributed to my defeats, so I intend to analyse those games and think more deeply about the critical moments, the way I was thinking at the time, and how I might adjust my thinking at the board to reduce those types of errors in future. If all goes well, the increased tactical sharpness I gained from Woodpecker training will still have a positive influence on my game in the future.

  19. Concerning Andrew’s result: I think 11 games don’t prove anything, as there are a lot of additional factors. I also don’t believe you train 8 weeks and afterwards you are a better Player, you have to repeat the method for months before having countable effects.

    Maybe also his preparation was a little bit too late, the book was not available earlier. The time between the end of his last cycle and the tournament was shorter than normally recommended in usual training courses.

  20. @Andrew Greet
    Very honest of you Andrew and brave of you to do it so publicly. Analysis of your own games and mistakes is still the key I think. At least you spotted that Bxg6 tactic and the rxd3 threatening knight forks in both of your games so all the good work was in evidence ?

  21. I think this highlights the fact that chess is NOT 90% tactics.
    Chess is Imagination in order to create , chess is Technique to convert , sometimes tactics helps in both, sometimes not

  22. There is also some luck involved when it comes to results at a particular event. Pairings, opponents’ openings, how much sugar was in the pie at lunch, how some calculated risks happened to pan out in certain games in which neither human could foresee everything…

  23. Unlucky – the benefits of the training will come in due course. Maybe a need to read Jacob’s books to supplement all of this. I suspect more time to rest was needed before the olympiad

  24. Thanks for the comments – I think all five of the above posts have a grain of truth to them. My plan from here is to take a break from tactics (perhaps revisiting the Woodpecker exercises after 6 weeks or so, as the authors suggest) and work on other aspects of my game, most likely working through ‘Positional Play’ and brushing up on some endgames.

  25. Thanks for the book. After reading “Pump Up Your Rating” I thought of trying this method, but to have a properly structured book for it is really helpful. How much benefit this book can be for a veteran remains to be seen but it’s worth a try.
    As training for the World Seniors (begins mid-Nov), I started on 1 October and reached nearly #300 so far. I shall probably have to stop around 500/600 in order to fit in a second cycle before the championship.
    Later, before another tournament in January, I will do a third and fourth cycle, omitting the Easy tests and aiming to do all the Intermediates. I am writing down main lines of the solutions as I go, then checking answers after I finish. I did the Easy ones in less than a minute with a score over 90%. As I am doing historical work on Steinitz, I solved those in about 30 seconds each with nearly 100% score.
    Slower (about 2 minutes per puzzle) and scoring worse (about 70%) on Intermediates. If I averaged 3 minutes I reckon I would see more of the variations and get a better score but speed is of the essence, right?
    As an historian, I am inevitably spotting a few mistakes in the position headers which of course don’t affect the usefulness of the positions as training puzzles. I will send in a list eventually in case there is ever a major new edition; please let me know if one is planned.
    In brief, #275 was an Edward Lasker game, not Emanuel. #233 (“Grimshaw-Steinitz”) is well known to be a spurious game: look on…

  26. @Tim Harding
    Thanks for that Tim. Your message was cut off due to the character limit; but in any case, we appreciate having such things pointed out to us. So, if you’d be so kind as to email one of us a list of corrections to the diagram headers, we will be sure to include them in future reprints. (Feel free to wait until you have worked through some more of the book.)
    Hope the training goes well and we wish you the best for the World Seniors.

  27. @Marek
    There are many ways to improve and I would not say any are unavoidable. But this is the one I use and it has been very successful with my students.

  28. Finally finished – cycle 5 should have been two days, but I managed to go through my 600-set in one day (four hours), so I stopped here. But I intend to repeat this one in a month, to get better longterm- results (without too much effort). – Cycle 3,4 and 5 were really challenging. Most time it was already night, after work. Although I’m a really dedicated amateur, I had to force myself to go on. I also took a slightly different approach for the puzzles involving more sidelines: In cycles 1 and 2 I only considered the critical line/main idea. But of course this slows down the following cycles. I also solved some other puzzles after finishing cycle 5 – my visualization abilities have clearly improved 🙂 The results over the last month in Blitz and Rapid also have improved – not dramatically, but countable. So thank you for this book, the explanations and the posts here.

  29. I also finished my 4th, 5th and 6th cycle. (due to university starting etc, my report is a bit delayed)
    4th cycle: 350min solving time, accuracy 98% – 3% point improvement to cycle 3, nearly 1/2 of the time
    5th: 282 min solving time, accuracy 99%
    6th (the one day exercise): 162 min solving time, accuracy 99.6%

    To summarize: the 4th cylce was probably the toughest in terms of speed required & accuracy aimed for. in the 5th and 6th cylce memory took such a big part, that it felt not like a big achievement. But on the other hand,e.g. learning vocabulary is also not exciting when you do the final drill, but necessary.
    I think the training increased my tactical awareness, but of course there is still work to do. The repetition every 6 weeks will be added to my training schedule, but for now I will probably work the most on calculation skills, using Jussopows Boost your chess and maybe on occasion the difficult stuff from the woodpecker.
    All in all thanks for the very practical book, sadly I won’t be able to play any big tournaments until January due to university. But some league games might show first evidence of woodpecking.

  30. @Tournesol


    Well done to both of you for persevering and completing the full set in a day, and thanks for sharing your experiences with it. Quite a number of people now have reported completing their full set of exercises in a day; so although it’s hard work, it’s certainly an achievable goal.

  31. I don’t believe (at all !) in the method, but I still like the book, very well designed, with great content of course. In a further edition, may be some of the solutions could be bettered; on the whole, a superb book of tactics !

  32. Hi Axel, many thanks for the book! Enjoying the exercises, and although I am only halfway through the first cycle so far (so a good bit away from even starting to employ the ‘method’), the consistent tactics work already seems to be paying off a bit.

    I have a little bit of feedback to give – of note is that I don’t know to what extend these are also the case in the printed version; as I got the ForwardChess one – and I also don’t know if these were already reported, as I didn’t scour the comment sections of previous blog posts:

    – The “Intermediate” headline in the General Introduction isn’t bolded
    – The puzzle in “Removing the Defender” (Tactical Motifs) has no move indicator
    – In “Gains of Tempo” (Tactical Motifs), the moves of the mainline aren’t bolded
    – Puzzle #492 has no move indicator

    “Personal Feedback”
    – I would prefer if the move indicator was somewhere else – both to be “easier to spot” and to allow maximizing the board on the mobile version.
    To explain what I mean; if I do a few puzzles in a row, I frequently ‘zone out’ and just look at the position. My eyes get to the board, and then after the h-file they stop and focus on the position, never getting to the White/Black dot to the right of it, which leads to me spending a minute calculating moves before I notice it’s Black’s turn. I’m used to “Black to move” meaning Black is also on bottom in the diagram, so I kinda just forget checking, and this has persisted across…

  33. @neiman
    what are the points to discard the method ? i am also a little suspicious about it but as we know repettition is a cornerstone of Learning what can you say?

  34. I think that this method could be applied in the process of learning many useful things, say the main theoritical positions of rook and bishop against rook for example.
    As for tactics, the main diificulty is to figure if there is, or not, a forced win. Once you know that there is one, it is just about knowing the main motives (unprotected pieces,etc.)and calculation techniques (like move order) but I don’t see the idea of remembering many examples. I think that youwould do better to master some great examples on every theme- like Fischer’s Rf6 against Benko, a blocking move.

  35. William Patrick Shea

    Hi, just got the book. It is quite inspiring to see all the hard workers who have completed multiple cycles. My excuse is three kids and the wife interrupting me, but in truth I probably would be distracted from the task before the kids too. Nonetheless, it is nice to have a goal and I hope I can see some progress. The cover is cool too. Mostly, I am happy to have a new chess book, as it had been a few months and I was searching for some new inspiration.

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