It is common knowledge (and a dirty little secret!) in chess circles at every level below titled players that reviewing well-annotated games by Grandmasters in the opening of your choice is one of the best ways to improve your play. All at once you get an opening lesson, instruction on plan development, transition from opening to middlegame, review of vaious tactical elements, execution of attack and defense, and if you are fortunate the game goes long enough, an endgame where you can see both sides struggling to win or hold the position.
A certain flow to the game only exists when you take the time to review a well-annotated game by a GM.
So, where do we start?
First and foremost, you need to define a clear methodology. We do not want to experience 'chess thrashing' - the act of jumping from one subject to another in a unorganized manner - during our study sessions.
Our basic steps are:
1) Define the opening we wish to examine via our own personal repertoire
2) Obtain well-annotated games by GM's in that opening (more on what 'well-annotated' means later)
3) Block off enough time each study session to absorb two games of annotations.
Step 1 - repertoire - is directly related to what you play. It will do you less good (still, some good however) to review Ruy Lopez games when you play 1. d4, so the point should be made here that we want to examine games within our opening repertoire, and most probably, the portions of our repertoire we feel the least comfortable in.
Step 2 - well-annotated games - does NOT mean Informant-Style annotations. In actuality, we are most interested in annotations that deal with concepts and ideas, and less with copious amounts of annotations. Books like Botvinnik's 100 Best games and Alekhines Best Games of Chess are two examples of well-annotated games that have a fine mixture of annotations (variations), concepts and ideas. Any good games collection that has text as a good portion of the annotations will work here. But, be sure we are in line with Step 1, for maximum effectiveness.
Step 3 - time - is of the essence. You want to be sure you have blocked off enough time, hopefully in the evening, to examine two complete games. We learn/retain knowledge as we rest, and since this being the last 'chess act' of the evening, we will have it in the forefront of our minds when we sleep.
Ok, so we have picked our repertoire, found the games, and are ready to examine. What do we do now?
One of the primary items is to examine the games on a real, 3D chess board, and not some graphical board on a computer. Chess is a spatial game, and the mind will retain and learn better if performed on a real board. Another of the prime goals is the examination of variations within the annotations. Here, we will refuse to move the pieces around on the board, but instead, visualize the variations in our head. Our goal is to visualize the entire variation before we move any pieces. If we are sure we got the variation visualization correct, then move on to the next annotation in the game. If we are not 100% sure, then we need to re-visualize the variation again and again until we are sure. If we cannot seem to get it right, then we will visualize as far as we can, then go back and move the pieces in the variation up to the point we could visualize, then begin to visualize again.
This visualization exercise coordinates well with what you do during a game: 'if I go here, he goes there, I take, she takes, pawn push...' etc., etc.
Some variations have sub-variations. Here is a way to do these annotations that makes sense:
1) Visualize the main line completely
2) Moving backwards from the end of the variation to the beginnning, visualize each subsequent side-variation.
Be sure you accurately examine each branch. If you cannot, go as far as you can, move the pieces, then continue until that side variation is completedly visualized.
Ideally, we would want to repeat this every night for several nights within the same opening, so we learn a good deal about how that opening transitions into the middlegame - one of the achilles' heels of club players.
Using this simple method to review annotated games by GM's, us sub-superstar players can begin to experience some of the nuances of high-level chess and improve our game steadily. The most important aspect of this study method is the correct association of YOUR opening repertoire with well-annotated games, which will result in hours of well-spent study time at the chessboard, hopefully translating into OTB victories.
If you have any additional suggestions or comments on how you review annotated games, feel free to comment on this post!