Workbooks

The workbooks are the most visible part of the Steps Method and unfortunately for many the only one they get acquainted with. Distressing is the content of a telephone conversation with a grandmother who told that her grandson was very fond of chess. She has even bought the manual to see herself how it works. "I can tell you Sir that the lessons of my grandchild look completely different. He gets a workbook with an instruction: solve page 24. Then, the teacher opens the door and keeps talking to one of his colleagues. At the end of the lesson he collects the workbooks. A week later, it appears that the errors are underlined but further nothing is explained. The assignments that have not been made, remain that way."

Workbooks (with reminders and exercises) are used to learn how to play better chess. Solving the exercises unthinkingly is certainly not the goal. The Manual Step 2 contains a list of useful aspects of solving the exercises. The process (orientation, what do I know, what are my options, etc.) is at least as important as the product (the correct solution). In the case of an error, it is obvious that feedback is necessary.

For many teachers, the number of exercises in the basic workbooks is enough. Everyone must make one's own choices. However, we want that the children learn to play chess as well as possible, therefore an approach with more workbooks has to be recommend. Don't see that as a marketing story to sell more books. Just look at the results of the trainers who work this way. A good example can be Boris Friesen (co-author of the Thinking ahead books) who trains in that way (and in addition uses also some extra material). Yichen Han is one of his pupils (born in 2007). At the end of 2014 his youth rating was slightly above 1000. One and a half year later, his rating was 1772. Why? He started slowly but mastered all the basic skills really well and then his rating was rising faster and faster.

In general terms it goes like this:
Teach new knowledge, practice it in the workbook and by playing (in mini-games or normal games) so that the new skills are automated.
Teach new knowledge: same procedure and deepen the previous knowledge in order to book gradually a full automation of all skills (with some subjects it can take a while).

Many subjects offer the possibility to master the previously acquired skills further. Knowledge that has been automated is ready to use from the long term memory, which makes it easy for the working memory to save enough space to think. As we rush through the steps at a very high speed it avenges itself so that too few things go 'automatically'. Working memory becomes overloaded and that often results in missing some elementary things. That can be noticed in the games of students who overlook the most simple combinations, their own possibilities and those of the opponent. If I am to visit a youth tournament, I look who's playing there, search in advance the games they have played recently (which is very easy in 2016) and try to estimate their steps level. During the tournament I ask by chance in which step they are. The outcome is pretty weird: two or three steps too high. Following their games for a while gives sufficient information.

Solving the exercises correctly is not an indication of playing strength. After solving a page in the workbook on a given subject one has only a general notion of the concept, which is not enough to use it correctly in 'new ' situations such as mixed exercises or one's own games. A lot more needs to be done. If nothing happens the level of knowledge and the skill level grow too far apart and sooner or later this leads to stagnation. There is no increase in playing strength any more.

In the manuals in addition to instruction, practice and playing games, it is also recommended to discuss the games with the pupils. It is the right moment to point out what went well and what should be practiced further. The result is: increase of the playing strength. Unfortunately, discussing games happens far too little. Nevertheless, one is surprised that so many students say thank you and stop playing chess.

In short: more workbooks! Is it useful to solve many exercises?
In her column on Chesscafe Susan Polgar gives the following suggestion how the beginner should play better chess.
One of the first things I suggest you to do is study middlegame tactics and endgame techniques. There are many tactical puzzle books that you can learn from. I would say you can start with 10-20 puzzles daily. These puzzles can be checkmate in 1 or 2 or tactics that involve pins, forks, discovered attacks, etc. As you get better and more efficient, you can increase to maybe 30-40 puzzles daily. If you have time, the more puzzles you solve, the better you will become.

Thanks to these additional workbooks students can continue practising at more or less the same level and thus spend longer going through a Step. The level of difficulty increases slightly, so that the exercises continue to be challenging. The shortcoming of (too) quickly proceeding to the next Step can be somewhat countered this way.

At what moment can we implement these workbooks? A general recommendation is not possible. The workbook Extra can already be used while working with the basic Step workbook. It is up to the trainer to decide whether parts of the Plus books will be discussed in between. That obviously depends on the level of the group but it is easy to imagine that a single theme from the Plus book pops up during simultaneous play or in the games of the students. A trainer who has a good picture of the entire first Step and knows what he is doing, can combine things.


For each Step there are 2 (Step 6), 4 or 5 workbooks.

Basic workbooks

Extra workbooks

Plus workbooks

Thinking ahead workbooks

Mix workbooks


Basic workbooks

These books are essential because they contain the basic teaching material which is vital to develop the necessary skills. Practice shows that to preceed to the next Step playing experience is indispensable (during this period the Extra and Plus books come in handy).
The verbal instruction given by the trainer is briefly summarised for the students by means of reminders. These are included in the exercise book (on average 10 per book).

Extra workbooks

A workbook with just one reminder and further merely exercises. In the first half there are only exercises on the same subjects as in the 'steps'. They are not only useful as an extra practice but also as a repetition.
In the second part all exercises are of the mixed type. The subject of the exercises is not indicated therefore they resemble positions from a real chess game. In the basic step books there are due to the lack of spacetoo few exercises of this kind.
All six step extra workbooks have been published.

Plus workbook

This book contains:

Plus workbooks for step 1 till 5 are available.

Thinking ahead

Step 2 is available.

Mix workbook

The best way to become stronger is to improve your game by avoiding errors. It is much more effective than learning new things and studying openings (please note: that should also be done but has no priority when more elementary skills and knowledge are still insufficient). The recommendation in the manuals is to discuss the games with the pupils. That gives important information. What skills are still at a low level? First of all, which shortcomings should be eliminated or at least worked on. The trainer is the best person to analyse the games together with his students, but in the long run the chess player will have to take that into his own hands. That is nothing new but an age-old proven way. It is fine if there is always some supervision and control.
Unfortunately experience shows that, in spite of the results of those trainers who do work in this way, it is not common practice. Although the mix-exercises cannot replace the trainer, they can help to spot the errors that need to be worked on. The answers indicate the theme of the tasks. If it turns out that the same kind of mistakes are being made frequently, it would be wise to repeat this theme. General skills, such as taking into account the possibilities of the opponent will come to the fore with a lot of (young) players. Also, the solving approach (finding the best move) is to be improved upon: without a search strategy it will not work if the preceding steps have not been rendered sufficiently automatic. Solving exercises only is much less useful than many people think (you learn patterns but there is much more to be gained). The nub is, whether the solution is found in a 'correct' way and not by picking a random move and trying it out. Unfortunately, that happens with workbooks too, but much less than with assignments on the computer. There pupils guess incessantly and from one wrong answer to the next they quickly move on to the next move. The result is that effective learning remains at a low level when one thinks of the time spent on such exercises. The most important thing of all is that feedback is necessary (see the Manuals under the heading ' Workbook ' under explanation, mistake and help).

The target is: learning to play chess better and the right approach has to be applied in a real game as well.

The plus workbooks have no mix-exercises and that is compensated with the mix workbooks now.

Finally, the question arises whether there are not enough other possibilities: there are already dozens of books on tactics and every year new ones are published. Apparently there is a market. First of all, we should point out that there are not only tactical tasks to be found in the mix-workbooks. Besides, there is one more significant difference between Step Method mix-workbooks and other books: the level of difficulty. We follow a review at schaaksite.nl: 1001 chess exercises for beginners by Peter Ypma.
A quote because the review is in Dutch: "the difference of the level with the mate in 1 tasks above is quite big. Although these tasks come from the tricky final chapter with weird positions. In the other chapters I also frequently found assignments with which I had a lot of difficulty. The exercises in each chapter vary in level from Step 2 to Step 7. "
First of all mate in 1 is Step 1 level. Furthermore, the Elo of Peter Ypma was 2214 at the time of the review, not exactly of a beginner. This problem, a huge difference between the easiest and most difficult task occurs in almost all books.
In these mix-workbooks all the tasks could be solved reasonably well if the current step and the previous step(s) have been properly learnt (i.e. lessons, exercises, practice - playing games and discussing the games). As a result the level is fairly consistent. Nevertheless, some tasks may require a lot of effort. That is why the books are a perfect tool to discover one's weak spots which require some further attention. For a stronger player it is certainly useful to solve easier tasks from time to time (but not from Step 1 if you are in Step 9). For weaker players, it is practically useless to try to solve tasks which are much too difficult. It's frustrating and they learn almost nothing from them. A chess player who wants to make progress should learn things that he can apply in his own games. Assignments which are around and just above his playing strength, have generally the right level of difficulty (right in the sense of being the most effective).

If you solve 80% of the exercises correctly then you have really mastered the Step (1), (2), 3, 4 or 5 level. That is the ultimate test.