The Smirnov Study Plan

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’ll be honest, I’m amazed at my progress.

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 Secrets 2

This 2nd Edition is much better than the first one, and it’s really the perfect introduction to Smirnov’s chess philosophy.

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.


I’ll say it before, I’ll say it again, this course completely revolutionized my chess.

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:

GM Secrets covers a little bit of everything, then, and the other courses add to it. It’s similar to undergraduate and graduate level courses at university.

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.

Self Taught Grandmasters

Not going to lie, I liked the old splash art better. Don’t get me wrong, this one is definitely better artistically, but the old one had a certain oomph to it.

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.

7 thoughts on “The Smirnov Study Plan

  1. Bryan

    You mentioned that “in March 2016 my rating currently sits at 2088”. Is that USCF or FIDE? Your rating on this page (at least as I type this) is at 1797. I just want to be clear so that I can get a better perspective of what I might expect. I’m a USCF player, currently at the sub-1300, and I want to get a realistic idea of how Smirnov will help me improve.

  2. JP Post author

    Hello Bryan, has seemingly stopped using their referral program, which was what powered my little stat box. Anyway, my rating WAS 1797, and I have risen to 2102 currently.

    All ratings refer to online ratings, as I’ve never earned an OTB rating. Online ratings tend to be higher than OTB, but not excessively so.

    When it comes to Smirnov’s courses, if you put time in to study GM’s Secrets, you will improve tremendously. If you only watch the videos, you might improve a bit, but if you really study the practical part, you can make great progress.

    In particular, GM’s Secrets has a few games annotated (virtually) every move, with everything referring back to the main principles in his first lesson. As a relative beginner, that’s absolute gold, as you really see how every move matters and how masters think.

    If you like Smirnov’s YouTube videos and find them useful, then his paid courses are the next logical step. Hope that helps.

  3. CitronJeune

    Hey SmithyQ !

    I am currently working on “The Grandmaster’s Secrets” (coming back to basics) and I experience some issues with my thinking process.

    I don’t know if I should find the candidate moves while doing the “base strategic principles” or not. Because when I try to think in general with the base strategic principles, I must think to some moves so should I include them immediately in my candidate moves ?

    I’m a bit confused, I played some training games and analyzed games but I am always in trouble during my thinking process and lose so much time !

    Please help me haha, I really can’t understand something, though I rewatched the lessons 3 or 4 times but don’t get it.

    Thanks for your help,

  4. JP Post author

    Use the principles to find ALL the candidate moves first. Once you find them, then you can calculate, and then you can play what you feel is the best one.

    That is, use the principles to help you in finding your candidate moves, definitely. Keep in mind that some positions are more tactical, and so need a greater focus on calculation, while others are quieter, thus requiring a greater focus on the base principles. There’s no point in thinking in general if both sides have potential mating attacks, for instance.

    If time is a trouble for you, make sure you use a watch while you practice. If it’s a general position, set a timer for 3min and tell yourself you will think in general and find the best move before 3min is up. Do this enough and you’ll work faster. If 3min is too fast right now, then make it a higher timer but work to make it lower in the coming weeks. That should help.

  5. CitronJeune

    Hi again Smithy !

    Thanks for the clear answer I understand much better, but there is still a little problem in my thinking so if it’s not too much asking you (take time if you can’t answer I know you’re busy these days) I would like you to light me a bit.

    Smirnov says that in the “Thinking System” we should first think in general to a position but if I try to find candidate moves, i’m more like a robot I don’t think in general. But I thought this part (the part “Think in general”) was the “base strategic principles”, isn’t it ? I hope you followed me.

    If you could answer me for that it would be just perfect because for instance I am trying to understand my “thinking system” while I should just think about a position.

    Thanks again,

  6. JP Post author

    Let me start by saying I completely understand your frustration. I never thought in general either, instead calculating automatically. This got me to 1800, but it took an incredible amount of work on EVERY move, and of course I never got higher.

    Learning to think in general is a skill. It doesn’t happen instantly, and you have to re-program yourself to stop instant calculation.

    Anyway, I found the best way to think in general is to ask general questions. “Who has move space? Who has the safer King? Who has the better pawns, the better pieces? If I could put my pieces on any square, where would I ideally want them?” You can’t ‘calculate’ these types of questions, and so it forces you to think in a different way. As this starts feeling more natural, you can trim this list down to just the base strategic principles, as they cover everything in a practical game.

    At first, as you’ve noted, it will take longer to make your moves. You’ll soon find, though, that you start seeing better moves, or moves you’d never consider before, and this will give you confidence and you’ll speed up and next thing you know it’s automatic. Well, that’s the end goal, at least. Good luck.

  7. CitronJeune

    Thanks for these explanations. It seems much clearer now. Yes it is really frustrating, but I know that we should change for the better even if it is uncomfortable and maybe especially when it is uncomfortable as Smirnov says.

    I decided to implement a part “Planning” in my thinking system in order to try to think in general to a position. Maybe I will replace it later by the “Base Strategic Principles” but for the moment I just split both. Does it seems ok ?

    Congratulations for your really instructive chess posts, even if I don’t comment always, I take a look at them.


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