Murray Cohen with a King Salmon he caught on Lake Ontario
Murray Cohen with a King Salmon he caught on Lake Ontario

A short chat on twitter with Murray Cohen, a master level player/coach with 50 years experience, became very interesting and I requested to expand our conversation and am grateful that he agreed.

Check it out, be sure to give him a follow on twitter and leave any comments that you have!

ChessMastery – Hi Murray, we had a short chat on twitter earlier and you gave some interesting advice on chess improvement which I’d like to discuss further.

As way of introduction, you mentioned some impressive details such as being a Canadian master level chess player, having over 50 years experience and playing around 50,000 games as well as having taught some European players. Is there anything else you can tell us about your chess history?

Murray Cohen – One of  my memorable accomplishments back in 2011 was to set a record of 150 consecutive wins in one minute speed games against international competition.

I was introduced to the game around 1959 by two Hungarian brothers in Montreal, Quebec. I was 8 years old when I started to get really interested in the game and played postal chess. I used to wait for the mailman eagerly to see what my opponent’s next move was going to be.

As the years went by, I played in a number of venues and so called friendly games but, when I beat my first master level player when I was a fairly young man, he was anything but friendly.

On another occasion, I played a master level player at a chess club in Ontario in winter and when he lost the game to what he considered an underling, he got so upset that he left the building and went out into a snowstorm without his coat. However, these were the exceptions. For the most part, chess players were and are friendly, helpful and encouraging. I have tried to pass this on to some of the folks I have coached over the years.

ChessMastery – In our conversation on twitter you said that your main advice is to play speed games “to hone creativity with fleet thoughts.” What is it about speed chess that makes it useful practice and how do you see it fitting into a training progamme? Do you see it as a key part of training for somebody interested in improving their performance at classical time control chess?

Also, could you tell us what “fleet thoughts” means to you? Are they first impressions, intuition, pattern recognition or something else? Also, how does the chess improver hone their creativity by this method?

Murray Cohen – You asked about my fascination and deep interest in speed games as I stated, “to hone creativity with fleet thoughts”. The idea of “fleet thoughts” fits into my interpretation of  personal “tabiya” , i.e., getting to a particular position by many different moves. To be able to do this instinctively in a speed mode is a powerful teaching tool.

During other phases of the game, speed training allows for hierarchically mentally testing the veracity of a certain move and discarding less effective moves by really “being present” in the moment and seeing the board.  I feel that speed game training – after a moderate level of classical knowledge and game play – adds another layer to the player’s chess repertoire which allows creativity naturally.

It’s like planting a cactus in a desert – it will search for water source wherever it might be. Speed games force the player to see beyond the moment and look at the game as a whole, not just piecemeal moves.

ChessMastery – Another thing you said was very thought-provoking: “In speed chess you learn that 5 seconds is like a lifetime if you have confidence.” Firstly, have you experienced the slowing down of time that is reported by players “in the zone?” I had it once in a tournament game with a strong position, both myself and my opponent were down to our last 30 seconds for several moves – everything seemed to slow down, I was able to see and check moves calmly and play them in what was actually only a couple of seconds but it felt like I had all the time in the world. This phenomenon has been discussed by Josh Waitzkin too. Is this the kind of thing you were referring to or do you have some thoughts about this?

Murray Cohen – Yes, I have experienced slowing down of time during play and being “in the zone”. I have actually experienced it many times in speed games. I have a specific memory of playing a one minute bullet game with a grandmaster level player from Sweden who played under an assumed name. It felt like I was playing a much longer game and when I later corresponded with him after my victory, he admitted that the game pace was so fast he was almost overwhelmed by it. I actually felt the opposite.

ChessMastery – The second part is to do with confidence. A recent post by @MiddleAgedPatz related to his chess improvement stated that “it’s not that I got that much better at chess, but I did get a whole lot braver”. I found that very interesting. Thinking back to my first tournament (in which I performed way below expectation) I was very nervous – my next few tournaments, just months apart, all showed considerable improvement (+500 Elo difference in tournament performance) despite my chess ability being roughly the same at each stage.

I have heard it said that many players hold themselves back subconsciously through fear of their opponent’s rating, a fear of winning, a fear of losing and all kinds of psychological elements that have little to do with their actual chess ability – do you have thoughts on this?

Murray Cohen – Confidence in chess is paramount. My thought on this has always been: “What’s the worst thing that can happen if I don’t play well? I won’t be sick. I won’t die. I will still have friends. Life will go on.” This took away so much apprehension and fear if you like. Often seeing this fear on an opponent subconsciously would make me even more relaxed because obviously they saw the game and winning  almost with a “life or death” mentality. The stronger my opponent was, the more relaxed I tended to get which is somewhat of a paradox. I felt in this instance I had nothing to lose.

 ChessMastery – I liked the talk about relaxing before a game and how it improves confidence and “equalizes the competence-performance equation”. You mentioned meditation as one way of doing this. Are there any practices that you can recommend a) for just before a game and b) as part of a lifestyle that will lead to a more relaxed state?

Murray Cohen – Yes, relaxation is key before a match and as part of daily living with nothing but a positive impact on chess performance. Meditation and listening to music are useful. I preferred progressive muscle relaxation which involves tensing and relaxing a number of muscle groups in the body which can be done the day of a match perhaps 30 minutes before game play. Another excellent approach is GSR biofeedback and you can check out the portable devices that many athletes use to totally relax before an event.

ChessMastery – You mentioned blindfold chess too. I have self-published a couple of books with chess vision training exercises and find this type of training very useful. What training tips can you recommend with regards to blindfold chess? Is it a case of, find another chess player and attempt a blindfold game, or are there other drills too? Could you expand on “Visualization and imagery become the mechanism.”

Murray Cohen – Blindfold chess is another excellent technique to grow your skills beyond the physical board. One can practice by focussing on just your side of the board at first, making 20 moves in your head and trying to recall, visually, how you got to the 20th move. Become comfortable with mental manipulation of pieces with imagery makes it easier to actually play blindfold games. My concept of “visualization and imagery becoming the mechanism” relates to how one can use your mind as a film projector to see games in your head with your eyes closed.

ChessMastery – These questions are just the immediate ones that came to mind from our brief conversation on twitter. You clearly have a wealth of experience and many fresh ideas that have proven to work well. Could you share other ideas or philosophies with us, on training, the nature of chess, what it takes to become a top player or anything else that you care to?

Murray Cohen – Finally, I have studied thousands of games of famous players. A number of women’s world chess champions have corresponded with me on twitter including GM Natalia Pogonina and GM Kosteniuk and on the men’s side some tweets with GM Nakamura. Let me wax poetic and say in positive fashion that:

 “Chess frolics among the green grass of thought, picking daisies of light and magic”.

 Best Wishes, Murray Cohen, Ontario, Canada

Our sincere thanks to Murray for his time and effort in answering our questions. Find him on twitter @ChessMaster34 !


2 thoughts on “Chess Interview: Murray Cohen”

  • rolpol says :

    Very interesting, especially ‘fleet thoughts’ and time perception; I thought I was playing too fast in a league game the other night against a very ‘thoughtful’ opponent, but when I checked my clock I had taken 15 mins longer than him overall.

    Lots of good ideas in this interview!

    1. Alchemos says :

      Have you seen this interview with ex-child prodigy Josh Waitzkin? He talks about the perception of time and a few other interesting chess/learning/competitive experiences. I was impressed by Murray’s very different ideas – I enjoy the philosophy side of things… and the philosophising about the philosophies if that isn’t spiralling into madness. The idea of searching for the truth in chess is fascinating – I’m seeing that there are many ‘ways’ and that maybe finding and mastering your own path is the way or one of the ways. Anyway, speed chess was a major part of Nakamura’s development and we’ve seen World Champions who have favoured seemingly opposing factors than each other and have conquered all with it so maybe nearly anything can work…

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