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Friday, February 24, 2017

Are You Studying Too Much Chess?

The Case of a Young Chess Blogger


Photographer: AJ Montpetit. CC0 1.0
Several years ago, I remember reading a chess blog of a young man who was excited about an opportunity to study chess for 7-8 hours a day. At the time, I thought that was neat (although lamenting that I did not have that kind of time with a family and work).

However, as I progress steadily in my own chess journey, I realize that perhaps the extra time to train may not have been a blessing after all.

The young man eventually got a job and nearly altogether quit chess, with little improvement to show from his summer of full time chess study.

This article is not about judging or criticizing those of you who have a lot of time to study chess. Instead, I want to discuss the benefits of setting upper bounds or limits to your chess study and play.

Some of the concepts I discuss in this article were inspired by an article by James Clear called Do Things You Can Sustain. Mr. Clear approaches the concept from the viewpoint of sustainability of growth, which I agree with, and I'll be also adding a few other benefits.

Sustainability


The main point that James Clear makes in his article is that there is a sweet spot for practice and improvement. Too little effort and time and you're basically being lazy - e.g. assuming you're not just too busy to study chess. Too much effort and you'll burn out. 

I actually set limits to my play and study partly for these reasons. Part of it is a practical matter of fitting it in with a family of three young children and work. Part of it is a strategic decision.

I try to play competitively over-the-board (OTB) about once a month or so. This frequency allows me time to analyze my games on my own as well as with my coach. Also, it helps me maintain and foster my relationships with my wife and children, as I use the other weekends to spend with them. 

Playing more often would probably make this a little tougher. If I played less frequently, I think I would come into each tournament somewhat rusty as playing online and studying isn't quite the same.

Prioritization


When you set limits to your studying and playing, it also forces you to pick and choose the most important activities. When I was in college and first started playing competitive chess. I studied chess books, my Chess Life magazine, as well as playing hours and hours of blitz chess on the Internet Chess Club. Although I improved, I think a lot of this was due to the fact that I was a beginner.

However, as I got a job, got married, and had children, I realized that I couldn't spend 4+ hours a day on chess. I had to prioritize my study and training time. I started to emphasize analyzing my losses as well as reducing my blitz play. Surprisingly, my improvement accelerated!

I think this is partly because I focused in on the areas that were most important for improving my play at the time. Of course, I needed to work on all parts of my game, but the most relevant materials within those areas yielded good dividends.

For example, instead of studying random master games - which was still helpful - I started to focus on games within my opening repertoire when possible. This helped me to learn patterns and variations that I would be more likely to see in my own play. Also, when I encountered these patterns in my own play, I was able to integrate my personal experience with what I was learning, which compounded the learning effect.

Attention


One of the other benefits of setting limits is attention. Your capability to attend to tasks - especially mental energy consuming tasks such as chess study - is limited. Have you ever played a long four or five hour chess match and then felt that your brain was fried? If not, then perhaps you weren't thinking hard enough (or your endurance is just greater than mine).

When we are studying chess for a long time at a stretch, or like our friend in the beginning of the article, for many hours in a day, we get tired. When our minds fatigue, we start to ignore or miss small details. This effects both our performance and our ability to retain knowledge.

A few months ago, my tactics routine consisted of doing three rounds of tactics on Chessity. This usually averaged out to around 30 tactical problems. Because I measure my progress, I noticed that I was plateauing and that often the performance on the 2nd and 3rd rounds was not as good as the first.

I decided to try something. I started to only do one round of tactics on Chessity - so usually 9-12 problems. This did a couple things. First, I didn't tire as I did my tactics training. Second, it increased my focus and attention, because I knew I would only get one shot. I realized as I looked back at my journal entries that I was getting too casual in my training. Instead of calculating variations, I was guessing just based on initial impressions - and I was getting enough of them correct to reinforce this habit.

Similarly, I eliminated nearly all of my blitz play. Part of this is my desire to create beautiful chess and thus wanting to focus on longer time control games. Also, although I believe blitz has a place in chess training, I felt since my time comes at a premium with my family and work, I needed to place my chess time elsewhere.

Because of this shift, I am much more attentive when I play both online and in over-the-board tournament games. When I played blitz, I often "binged" - if I lost, I would play again until I won a few in a row. I would spend an hour or two and get 5-10 games in. However, the quality of those games and their instructive value were fairly low. Now, playing only two or three longer time control games per week, I have a different level of focus and effort.

Although I generally have an abundance mentality about life, this is a case where having a scarcity mentality creates both urgency and effort in a positive way!

Applications


Here are a few suggestions on how you might apply what I'm talking about to help optimize your chess training.
  • Measure your effort levels and focus during your chess training. Use a journal or spreadsheet.
  • Measure how much time you train and play each day. Compare this with your effort levels and focus - if you find a drop-off after a certain amount of time, you could be burning out or overtraining.
  • Consider setting an upper bound to how much time or how many activities you will do each day. For example, set a two hour cap on your study time or a 10 problem cap on your tactical training.
  • Observe differences in your mood, energy, and level of effort after you have made changes.
  • Experiment with different aspects of your training - e.g. playing, studying, training drills, etc.
  • Consider the time and effort you spend on non-chess activities that can effect your chess performance such as sleep and nutrition. Redirecting some time and effort towards those may be a beneficial change.

Conclusion


When it comes to training at chess, it's not only the amount of time that we put into it. It's also the activities we choose to engage in as well as the level of engagement, attention, and effort we exert during that time that effect how much we can improve. 

The right strategy I think is an individual choice, based on factors such as your other responsibilities, your mental endurance (which can be trained to some extent), as well as your ambitions and goals in chess. Like chess, the pieces on your own personal "board" looks different than the next person's, and thus different plans and moves have to be considered.

Your Turn


Did you enjoy this article?

Are you going to try some of the ideas I mention? 

If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on Twitter or Facebook. 

Also, follow me on Twitter, where I share all of my chess writing and activity as well as try to spread positive messages in general.

Good luck and as always, Better Chess!