What I Learned From GM Iossif Dorfman

Good Coaches help you improve. Great Coaches change the way you think about Chess. I was lucky enough to have some amazing Coaches during my Career. One of them was Grandmaster Iossif Dorfman.

The name might ring a bell.

Yes, I am talking of the Iossif Dorfman that assisted the great Garry Kasparov in his first four World Championship Matches against Karpov.

Dorfman later wrote one of my favorite chess books, “The method in Chess” and Coached Etienne Bacrot from a young boy all the way to Number 9 in the World!

In this article, I will point out three major things I learned from working with one of the most renowned Coaches in the World.

  • Train like a World Champion & see where this leads you
  • Guide the Engine with your Chess understanding
  • Form a system to think about Chess to make your decisions easier and more guided

Early Beginnings Of My Work With Dorfman

When I decided to go pro after my high-school degree in summer 2015, I searched for new input.

My way of thinking about Chess abruptly changed from “I’m too lazy to study but I like to play” to “I have 24hours per day, how can I get the most out of me to get better in chess”.

It was only logical that I needed a Coach that could match my intensity & desire of getting better at Chess. As two of my Childhood friends & competitors were Coached by Iossif Dorfman, I connected with him in late 2015.

Already before we had our first session, I was truly impressed:

Dorfman demanded I send him my last 50 games so that he could get an idea of my strengths & weaknesses. He went through ALL of these games before our first ever lesson and presented me with an idea of what we could work on.

He still insisted we should first limit our work relationship to 10 lessons before deciding if working together can be fruitful for both sides.

These 10 lessons helped both of us to understand each other better.

For those of you wondering: yes, he really thinks like explained in the Chess method!

More to that later on.

Our work relationship, which lasted a bit more than 1.5 years, consisted of three main parts:

  • Intense training Camps (5-10 days) usually in Cannes (France) where he resides
  • Weekly Lessons via Skype
  • Preparation work during my tournaments

In that short but very intense time, I managed to go from IM to youngest Swiss Grandmaster and reigning Swiss Champion.

1. Train Like a World Champion & See Where This Leads You

For a long time, I did not believe that I can get to the Top of the World in Chess. I even made fun of Swiss players that publicly stated that they wanted to get the GM title. It was just beyond my imagination that anyone of us could reach such heights in Chess.

Switzerland has a mediocre to no Chess tradition, a bad federation & not many good Coaches. For a long time, I was not even the best in my age category in Switzerland.

Being a Chess professional in my country is not looked up to. On the contrary, it is seen as a waste of time & effort.

After my 5th place in the U18 World Championship in 2014, this limiting belief started to change inside me. But my surroundings still had the same old beliefs.

From the federation to Coaches & even my parents: everybody thought I should simply go to university and forget about a Chess career.

Dorfman was different. From the first day we met he was honest, but without limiting beliefs. “Train like a World-Champion and see where it goes” was his motto. There was no lost time & energy about guessing how strong I could become.

2600? 2700? We both didn’t know. But we both knew it was only possible by working in the right way. So that is what we focused on.

The combination of honesty, limitless belief & good work ethics is something I see in very few Coaches. Many Coaches will accept any student & tell them what the student wants to hear.

Or simply what will make the student take the maximum amount of hours. If you feel this way about your Coach, I would recommend you to re-think your choice. You can do so by reading my article on finding a great Coach.

Some Coaches simply misunderstand the wording “getting the most out of the student”. You should get the most potential out of the student, not money…

Having a Coach that believes in you and has the same drive & ambition is invaluable. It was the first time since my 5th place at the World Championship that I could openly talk about my ambitions.

Not A Great Fit In All Situations

What made our work so special for me in the first months was also the reason it lasted only for 1.5 years. After my accident in Summer 2017, I had to take time off from Chess.

I did not completely stop playing, but I rarely could focus for an hour a day. It still is a mystery to me how I did not lose much more rating back then. With this serious limitation, the drive & ambition Dorfman had was not the right fit anymore for me.

Having worked with so many great players, I feel he did lack the patience to work with someone that physically was not able to give 100% all the time. That is why I decided to part ways in late Summer 2017.

In retrospect, I believe this is how life goes. I do not believe in the perfect Coach for everybody. Every major upside usually also has some downside. In this case, Dorfman is an amazing Coach for anybody with high ambition, great health & a lot of commitment.

Once I lacked the second (and partly third) point, we weren’t a perfect fit anymore.

2. Guide the Engine With Your Chess Understanding

Chess Engines can be a great tool, especially in opening preparation. However, as I wrote in this article, it can be a problem if you let the Engine be “the boss”.

Your head switches off and even if you find nice novelties, you will most likely not remember them or play on correctly.

For a player of Dorfman’s age (born 1 May 1952), it is certainly not easy to be suddenly confronted by Engines that are much stronger than human chess players are.

Maybe also because of this difficulty, did the way Dorfman sometimes guided the Engine with his phenomenal Chess understanding leave a big impression on me.

Let me show a concrete example to explain my point. In a French sideline this position occurred in our analysis:

Position of our French analysis arising after: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 dxe4 5.Nxe4 Nbd7 6.c3 h6 7.Nxf6+ Nxf6 8.Bh4 c5 9.Bxf6

To me, this was not a point where one should stop. It looks like Qxf6 simply is horrible because of Bb5+. The Engines back then backed this conclusion and gave white a huge advantage.

But because Dorfman did not want to weaken our structure with gxf6, he wanted to still have a look at what exactly happens.

After Qxf6 Bb5+ Kd8! White can take on c5 with a check! But after Kc7 it turns out things are not that easy.

Engines today show that black manages to equalize. But back then we had to do quite some analysis to come to that conclusion.

Dorfman’s feeling simply was that the King on c7 was not really in danger and that the Bishop pair will give black long-term chances.

Sadly, I never had the chance to implement this idea in a practical game. I’m sure my opponent would have been incredibly surprised. I still today believe that black’s position is easier to play, thanks to Dorfman’s explanations.

We had many similar ideas in our preparation. Dorfman always thought about general ideas, plans & weaknesses while analyzing openings.

Whenever he believed there was a move that made strategic sense, he would try to make it work.

Obviously, if the Engine insisted the move was just horrible (because of some tactics) we let it go.

But more often than not, the move was actually playable. And this approach has big advantages:

  1. Your opponent will be surprised because you don’t play the first engine line
  2. You play with a clear plan and strategical goal in mind. It will be easier to continue to play well, because the preparation was already human-like.
  3. The move is not as bad as the engine first says. So most likely, your opponent will under-estimate this move and maybe over push.

Finding moves that make sense but (initially) aren’t on the top of the Engine list is a superpower Dorfman possessed.

This also made each analyzing session incredibly valuable for me, because I did not only learn new moves, but concepts & ideas in every opening.

My article on analyzing openings is influenced by him and contains a nice example of how I scored incredibly well in the French Tarrasch after analyzing it with him. Check it out if you have not already!

3. A Structured Thought Process Makes Things Easier

DISCLAIMER: A thought system can only make you as good as your current playing strength. The idea is that you can fulfill your current potential in your games with such a system. It will not automatically make you better or help you spot tactical/positional ideas you never learned! It is no magic pill! There are no magic pills!

That brings us to the last point: a structured process makes things easier. As explained in his book “the method in chess”, Dorfman thinks extremely structured about Chess.

This structure does not indicate that chess is EASY. It just makes playing Chess a bit simpler.

I’m not repeating his method because I do feel there are many valuable “thought systems” that can help. Therefore, it is not about this exact system, but about having some kind of system.

Let me be very clear: learning a new way of thinking can be tough. I was confused many times when he said I should implement the system in practice & games. It led to some very curious decisions on my part.

But once it becomes like second nature, you simply develop an intuitive way to approach any position.

In short, you think, “do I need to play dynamical or strategical moves”? Only this question has helped me decide on many cases what I should even start to calculate.

Dynamic or Strategic Move?

Nuances can decide if you should play dynamic or strategic moves. Let’s compare two cases:

Case 1:

You realize your opponent’s King is weak, but it might escape on the next move.

Case 2:

Your opponent’s King is weak. But there is no escape for the King.

In my experience, few players can make that distinction between those 2 cases. The underlying theme is that your opponent’s King is weak. But your reaction in both cases should be different!

In case 1, you should absolutely play a dynamic move. Any move that isn’t a check or a threat should not really be considered. Once the King escapes, the attack is over.

In case 2, you have time to bring all your pieces. Just attacking with the pieces already in the attack might not be enough to mate the King.

With Dorfman’s process of determining static or dynamical advantage, I had an easy time figuring out if I needed to play direct, or if I had time to bring all the pieces into the attack.

I’m sure many good players would solve such positions simply by brute force. Having a framework can reduce your candidate moves from sometimes 5 to 1 or 2 moves. If both moves that would be dynamical fail tactically, you can still consider alternative options.

For my more stubborn readers: the system does not explain Chess or make it easy in any way. A system is designed to increase the possibility that you are able to fulfill your current potential in every game. Nothing more than that.

Summary Of My 3 Key Learnings From Grandmaster Iossif Dorfman

Working with the former Coach of Garry Kasparov was extremely beneficial for my career. Even 4 years after our collaboration ended, I still use some things that Iossif taught me on a frequent basis.

More importantly, he has formed how I think about Chess and during Chess games.

In a Nutshell:

  • Focus on what you can control, namely your training or input; however you want to call it. Accept things that you can’t control and move on.
  • Use your strategical understanding to guide the Engine. Play human moves already in your opening preparation.
  • Structure your thought process in a way that finding good moves is not depending on luck. I did not find “the perfect way” yet, many ways can be beneficial. The worst thing is having no structure at all…

The reason I hesitated writing this article was that his books

  • The method in Chess
  • Critical Moments

both are out of print. They are available second-hand, but really expensive. Luckily, there is a new video course on his method on Chess24 which I can recommend.

I’m extremely grateful that there are thought leaders like Iossif that try to simplify finding good moves for everyone. And that I had the chance to work with him.

But always remember, chess can be simple, but never easy.


I firmly believe that

anyone can improve their chess through the right mindset and training techniques.

I’m here to guide you on your journey to chess mastery.

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