I’m not going to lie, I’m a bit of a Smirnov fanboy, a disciple if you will. If he makes something, I buy it. I have good reason: before his courses, I had been stuck at 1800 rating for years and years. I studied Grandmaster’s Positional Understanding, his flagship course, in 2015, and in March 2016 my rating currently sits at 2088. I’ve improved nearly 300 points, and I might not be done yet. That’s awesome.
I own all of Smirnov’s courses, and as I’ve begun watching and rewatching all the lessons, I’ve begun to see the overall pattern or structure of his teaching. I now understand why his courses are the way they are, and I want to share that with you here.
First things first. Chess is primarily a thinking game. You need to know what to think, how to think and when to think it. As the game changes so must your thinking. Development, for example, is important in the openings but not something you’ll think about in the endgame. You need your thinking to be flexible enough to handle each stage of game.
Before GM Smirnov, I had never heard of a ‘thinking system’. I had read many different books and tutorials, but none covered thinking, at least not directly. By this, Smirnov literally means how you think about chess. When you look at a position, what do you do? I’ll tell you what I used to do: I would stare, and then my intuition would suggest a few moves and I’d begin to calculate each one in turn. That’s it. If you asked me how I came to my possible moves, I couldn’t tell you. They were just the moves that came to mind.
This explains why I didn’t get past 1800 rating. I was almost playing randomly. After going through Smirnov’s courses, I now have a set thinking algorithm. I ask a series of quick questions and ‘answering’ them gives me my candidate moves, which I then calculate. This approach is so simple and so effective, it blows me away.
Smirnov’s courses are labelled as beginner, intermediate and advanced, but those aren’t the best labels. It would be better to call some Foundational and others Next Level. You can’t add the second story to to a building without first having that foundation. A rock-solid foundation, though, will allow you to learn all the Next Level techniques.
The two Foundation courses are GM’s Secrets and GM’s Positional Understanding. Both teach a universal system of thinking, but they go about it in different ways.
GM’s Secrets teaches you a little bit of everything. It teaches you Smirnov’s chess principles, or how to find the right move in any position. This is the cornerstone of Smirnov’s thinking system. Following these principles will inevitably lead you down the right path. You might not always find the 100% best move, but you will find good moves, and you will make much fewer mistakes.
GM’s Secrets also tells you what do during the different stages of the game. You need to think differently in the middlegame compared to the opening and the endgame, and Smirnov gives you the most basic things to look at for each stage. Again, basic doesn’t mean necessarily mean beginner, it means foundational. Once you learn this, all the ‘advanced’ stuff becomes so much easier, and without it, the advanced stuff is impossible.
The weaker you are, the more revolutionary GM Secret’s will be. If you’ve studied a lot of chess material, then it will have less of an impact. It gives you foundational knowledge of four things: the opening stage, middlegames and planning, endgame technique and, most importantly, a universal thinking system, which includes calculation. Smirnov’s other courses, then, add to this, giving you that next level.
Grandmaster’s Positional Understanding (or GMPU from now on) takes a deeper look at the chess principles, which are, again, the cornerstone of Smirnov’s incredible thinking system. By really looking deep here, we discover why Bishops are often better than Knights, how and when to advance pawns, when to accept a weakness in exchange for activity and so much more. This course, in short, teaches you everything about strategy and positional play.
This course is absolutely fantastic, especially if you are intermediate to advanced strength. As I said at the beginner, I went from 1800 to nearly 2100 in one year just from this course. I understand so many more positions, and I feel lost much less. This course also directly trains the most important part of Smirnov’s thinking system, the chess principles. If you apply it, if you study hard, you can’t help but improve.
These two courses, GM’s Secrets and GMPU, are the foundation of Smirnov’s teaching. I would say you absolutely need at least one of them. If you are more advanced, GMPU is likely all you need. If you are closer to the beginner stage, then GM Secrets will put you in the best spot to fully study GMPU.
I really need to emphasize, though, that you should study either GM Secrets or GMPU before these following courses to get the most benefit. You can’t get to the next level until you master the first level. Once you have that foundation, the other courses can add to it.
- Opening Lab 2 will give you a deeper look at the opening stage, on how to play any position even if you don’t know the theory. Your opponent’s can play strange moves or sudden novelties, and you will still be okay.
- Your Winning Plan explains middlegame play and planning much more thoroughly. It will give you guidelines on how to play many different middlegame positions.
- Endgame Expert then takes the endgame stage and goes into detail on how it’s different from the middlegame and how you should thus approach it differently.
You could study them in any order, depending on which one you are weakest. My advice would be to go Endgame -> Opening -> Middlegame, simply because the endgame gets the least focus in GM Secrets. Alternatively, you have to play the opening every game, not always the endgame, so starting with Opening Lab 2 makes sense as well. The middlegame course can wait, as GM Secret’s does a really good job with planning as is.
Finally, there comes Calculate Till Mate. GM Secrets explains how to calculate variations, but CTM again goes deeper. It explains how and when to calculate, when to start and stop, what to look for and what to avoid. It explains the signposts, when a sacrifice or attack might be possible and so when to invest your time. Calculation is a fundamental skill which, to take the next step in your development, you will need to master at some point.
In the final analysis, then, GM Secrets lays an impressive chess foundation, and the other courses then build around it. Graphically, it looks like this:
This is the core of Smirnov’s thinking system. If you have this, you have everything you need to be a very strong player. “But wait!” I hear you say. “RCA has other courses! What about them?”
True, Smirnov and RCA do indeed have a few more courses, but they are not essential. They do not fit into the above thinking pattern, and I’d say they are more geared towards aspiring professional players.
Opening Lab 1, for instance, mainly tells you how to learn and study openings using databases. This is how you learn openings at a master-level. That’s great … if you are at master level. If you aren’t, it’s largely unnecessary.
How to Beat Titled Players is hard to describe. It features ‘advanced skills,’ such as positional sacrifices and prophylaxis, and I can’t add much more to it that. You could perhaps say it’s the finishing touch to the above thinking system.
Finally, there comes Self-Taught Grandmaster. Interestingly, this is my most viewed review for Smirnov’s work, and it’s perhaps the course I recommend the least. You see, Self-Taught GM gives you a study plan to reach masterhood, but if you follow the above logical progressions, you are close to mastership anyway. Self-Taught GM will plug up your remaining weaknesses, whatever it left, but it’s a high price for relatively little value at this stage.
That said, it also contains the best techniques for studying chess, which is really good value. It speeds up your progress and retention by a lot. A big part of my +300 increase isn’t just studying GMPU, it’s studying GMPU while using the recommendations from Self-Taught GM. I would say that Self-Taught GM is only for the very serious chess player.
In my view, if you are serious about chess and really want this course, would be to grab one of the bundles. For instance, the Intermediate Bundle gives you three courses for roughly the price of two, or you could get the complete RCA bundle and get everything for 25% off. Unless money is absolutely no problem, buying Self-Taught GM by itself seems suboptimal.
This, then, is the logic behind GM Smirnov’s curriculum. Start with either GM Secrets or GMPU, depending on your current level, and then build up from there. It covers just about everything you need to know in chess, at least in general. As Smirnov says, your thinking system is roughly 90% of your playing strength, with the other 10% being concrete knowledge (opening lines, theoretical endgames, typical combos, etc).
If you want more information about any individual course, click on it to see my detailed review. Alternatively, click here to see my complete collection of GM Smirnov reviews. Finally, I’m more than happy to answer any questions you might have.