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Friday, March 17, 2017

Three Levels of Chess Training Strategy

"Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war and then seek to win."
-Sun Tzu
What are your goals in chess?

Do you have a plan for your chess improvement?

Do your chess training activities align with your goals?

It's okay if you don't have answers for these questions. In this article, we're going to discuss planning your training strategy on three different levels:

  • Vision
  • Strategy
  • Tactics
Here on Better Chess Training, I try to address all three levels. Let's discuss each one in more detail and what you can do to apply these concepts to improve your chess.

Vision


The most important level is your vision. What are your aspirations for chess as a player? Do you want to mainly enjoy the game with your family and friends? Do you want to play in tournaments and progress up the ratings ladder? Do you want to be a national champion?

Your answer and perhaps more importantly your belief in this vision is the foundation for the strategy and tactics that you employ.

For example, I have a vision of becoming a USCF rated master (and perhaps a little better) - somewhere around USCF 2300. Although I feel this is quite challenging, I think over time it is definitely possible with a lot of the right work and perseverance. However, I make no delusions of ever becoming a grandmaster. 

This is quite different than the vision of a friend of mine. He enjoys keeping up with the current world class chess tournaments on the internet and playing chess with his grandchildren. His vision is to be able to be a good sparring partner for his grandson and be able to understand at least a little of what is happening between the world's elite players.

We both would like to improve our current level of chess knowledge and skill, but our differing visions may set us on slightly different paths in terms of the strategy and tactics.

So what are your goals in chess? What is your vision? Feel free to share in the comments because I'd love to read them (and by knowing them I might be able to write more helpful articles).

Once you have a clear vision for your chess, you can look at strategies to achieve your vision.

Strategy


Of course, we know what strategy is in relation to our chess games. It involves looking at the pros and cons of our position with the ultimate vision of checkmating our opponent. Your strategy in training is similar.

Strategy is your plan on how you will get better at chess (or achieve your vision). A good strategy (or strategies) takes into account your current strengths and weaknesses as well as your life's circumstances. 

Let's use myself and my friend as examples.

My strategy for improvement takes into account a few things:
  • Understanding what it takes to become a USCF master
  • Assessing my current level of understanding and skill in various areas of chess
  • Accounting for my responsibilities in my life that take time and energy - e.g. work, family, and home
  • Taking into account the financial resources I can allocate towards chess
In order to assist me in developing my training strategy, I am now working with a coach - GM Nigel Davies. I wrote about the role a coach can play in Should You Hire a Chess Coach? Besides teaching chess, we also discuss our training on a strategic level based on what he is seeing in my games. Here are just a few examples of strategy based on the factors above and what he has seen in my games:
  • We have simplified my opening repertoire to take into account both my skill level and the amount of time I can spend studying openings.
  • Noting an underdevelopment in certain aspects of my positional knowledge, we focus on these specifically during lessons and fill in gaps with the Tiger Chess program.
  • Although I think daily tactical training is essential for players, we noted that this was a strength, so I spend a little less time on it in order to focus on other areas of chess study. However, I still do my tactics training daily.
Besides these training elements, I've also introduced a few other strategic elements into my personal training program:
  • I've become more consistent with meditation and practicing mindfulness. I use simple breath awareness meditation mainly using Headspace. This has helped me to manage my energy better as well as increased my focus, which is important in chess and life.
  • I try to get at least seven hours of sleep at night. I track my sleep and performance on tactics, and there is a definite correlation between the hours of sleep and my results. As I write in my article on sleep, there is much scientific evidence supporting the importance of sleep for cognitive performance.
  • I tend to do things in a disorganized fashion. In order to combat this in my life and in my chess training, I have started using organization tools more effectively, including scheduling my training in my daily calendar and using Evernote for work, home, and chess.
In the example of my friend, his strategy for improvement is a little different. He's retired, so time isn't as big of an issue. Also, he told me that he wants chess to be fun. He's spent his whole career working hard, so he doesn't want to do anything that will feel like "work." Instead of arguing with him on the definition of work and chess - I enjoy all of my chess "work" - I decided to go with him on his thoughts and helped put just a tiny bit of strategy into his chess "enjoyment."

Here are a few things that he does regularly:
  • He watches videos on Youtube including my channel and a few others. Mainly, he enjoys watching videos that have commentary on games.
  • He plays his grandson in chess regularly. He also looks at his games regularly after he plays them, doing a super quick version of my Seven Questions. I don't think he records the games, so he just goes over them for 15-20 minutes after playing them from what he can remember. 
  • He reads the chess books that his grandson reads, and tries to solve all of the chess puzzles.
His strategy for improvement is quite different then mine, but help him to achieve the vision he has for himself. He has gotten improved gradually and so has his grandson!

So when reflecting on your own strategy, make sure that your strategies for improvement align with your vision. Also, you want to make sure your strategies align with your life circumstances. If your strategy for improvement account for these factors, then you're on the right track!

These strategies are what we need to do to reach our vision. Executing them is what tactics is all about.

Tactics


Vision is what you want to accomplish. Strategy is plan to get there. Tactics is the execution of that plan.

There are several objectives that we try to accomplish through tactics:

  • We want our training to be effective - e.g. to accomplish what we set out to do.
  • We want our training to be efficient - e.g. we want to maximize our learning or training within the time we have.
Here we can see the importance of strategy. You can have the most effective and efficient method of training your openings, but if you lose most of your games due to blunders and you don't train your tactics sufficiently, you will likely not improve very much.

I discuss this topic in more detail in a two-part series Principles of Effective Training (Part 1 and Part 2). Here I will just highlight a few points and how they relate to tactics.
  • Appropriate material is important for effective training. For example, a chess grandmaster probably doesn't need to spend much time solving mates-in-one problems. Similarly, a beginner probably doesn't need to study much opening theory.
  • Having clear objectives is critical because otherwise it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of training. 
  • Have feedback loops helps us measure whether or not we accomplished the objectives and gives us a way to adjust our tactics to make our training more effective.
  • Regular review ensures that our training and learning stays in our memories.
With regard to efficiency, these principles are also relevant. 
  • If your study or training methods are too hard, you will need to do it again when you are strong enough to understand or tackle it. If your methods are too easy, you will not improve very much or very quickly.
  • Without clear objectives, you may improve "accidentally" but the path might be windy and long as opposed to straight and direct.
  • Proper feedback loops will help you understand where you need to make adjustments in our training.
  • Regular review will keep you from forgetting and having to relearn the material, which would be inefficient.
You can learn more specific methods and tactics on Better Chess Training and in some of my other writing. Here are a few articles that talk about various training methods:

Some activities may belong to both strategy and tactics. For example, for me getting proper sleep was both a strategy to better health and thus more longevity in chess as well as a tactic, as I noticed my training was not as effective on days that I did not get much sleep. 

Don't worry too much about classifying whether an element of your training is part of your strategy or tactics. These are just labels to help you understand your thought process behind your planning, not the goal themselves.


Evolving Strategies


Planning your chess training isn't a one time deal. Over time, as you encounter different methods and different viewpoints, your vision, strategy, and tactics may shift. 

Your vision might change due to a change in circumstance. For example, the vision of my chess changed quite a bit from the ambitious 20-year-old who had plenty of time to study and train to a 40-something-year-old father and businessman who has 1-2 hours a day at most for chess.

Your strategy will change as you grow in strength in different areas of chess. This is natural and necessary. Chess is too complex of a game to use a single strategy to improve throughout your chess career. Embrace the change and have fun with it.

Finally, tactics will probably change most frequently as advances in chess software and our understanding of training grow. Similarly, your experience with specific tactics will change as you find what works for you. Although there are certain principles of learning and training that are fairly universal, the specific way you manifest those principles might be different for you than another player - even if you are of similar strengths.

My final advice is that besides your own analysis and assessment of your situation through these three levels, seeking the help or feedback from a coach or even other players is often helpful. They can objective as they are not emotionally attached to the outcome as you might be. They might be able to point things out that you may not see because of your own personal biases.

Your Turn


Have you considered these three levels of planning in your own chess improvement? 

Is there one level that perhaps you were focused on more than the others?

Is there one level that you have neglected? What can you do to change that situation?

Let me know in the comments. I'd love to have a conversation with you about it.