Monday, May 19, 2014

4 Dimension Model of Learning Chess (and Anything Else)

How do you know whether or not your chess study (or any other topic you learn) is going to be effective? 

In today's post, I'm going to share with you a the 4 Dimension Model of Learning (or 4D for shot) that I developed so that you can use it to plan out and monitor your study sessions for maximum effectiveness. I will lay out each dimension briefly and expand on them in future posts and videos.

Dimension 1: Relevance

Is what your studying relevant to what you need now as a chess player? Will the material you are studying - book, video, web site - be useful for you in the future? An affirmative answer to both of these questions is critical in maximizing your study efficiency with the precious time you use towards your chess improvement.

Selection is an important aspect of creating your chess study and training program. Check out this picture:

You can optimize your chess improvement by studying things that are closer to the bullseye. As your knowledge increases, your target expands as you have to fill in gaps. For example, if you are rated below 1400 and you are losing to knight forks or giving up one or two-move checkmates, then understanding the intricacies of the 21st move of the King's Indian Defense will not help you as much as learning basic tactics. However, when you are rated 2100 and you regularly reach move 20 in the King's Indian Defense within theory, then knowing the 21st move is very relevant for you.

So choose your study material wisely!

Dimension 2: Engagement

The more you engage the task at hand, the more you will understand and remember the material. When I teach classes to adult students, some of them sit there with a glassy look in their eyes particularly after a long day at work. Others will be leaning forward, watching intently, scribbling notes as I speak. Which one do you think will retain more of the information I'm teaching?

There are many ways to increase engagement in your chess study. Here are a few:
  • Check yourself by asking - I do it out loud sometimes - do I understand this? If the answer ever comes back "no" you can decide what to do from there.
  • When studying master games, try to guess what the winner is going to play (while covering up the moves) - I call this Solitaire Chess and I think it's a great training method.
  • Ask yourself "what if" often and try to determine what would be the best line of play if something other than what the author wrote was played (e.g. in a chess book). 
  • When studying one of your own games or an unannotated master game, write in your own words what you think is going on. 
  • When watching chess videos, pause it often and think about what is going on and whether or not you agree with the presenter's opinion. 

The bottom line is finding ways to think more about the material while your studying it will help you learn it better. Another way to put this is to be a more active learner vs. a passive learning. Years ago, I had a chess lesson with Grandmaster Gregory Serper. He told me that one of his assignments was to correct a collection of annotated games by Garry Kasparov - without the use of computer engines. He was given this assignment by Kasparov himself. Let's just say his level of engagement to complete his assignment was very high!

Solving tactical problems is often very effective for quick improvement for beginning and intermediate students since by forcing the student to produce the solution, he is forced to engage the material at a very high level.

Dimension 3: Challenging

Like Goldilocks, the level of difficulty of the material you learn has to be just right.

If the material is too hard, first off you won't learn anything. Second, you will just get frustrated and perhaps quit. Even if you do plow through and think you have it, it may not be applicable to your level of play.

If the material is too easy, you will get easily bored and won't learn anything new. Unfortunately, this can also lead to overconfidence.

Material is just right illicit the feelings of being challenged as well as stretching oneself to become better. This material should have elements of things already known material to build upon. At this level, you will often feel an A-HA! moment during your study session.

This is also the reason that it is important that a majority of your opponent's should be within 50-100 rating points of your rating. Of course, it is good to play stronger players and occasionally to play weaker players, but you will learn best if your opponent's are just slightly stronger than you on average.

Dimension 4: Time

Chess author and coach Dan Heisman has stated that amateur players often lose not because of knowledge they didn't learn, but because they didn't apply it at the right time. Also, have you noticed that it's easier to play an opening after you've just studied it or played it recently than if you hadn't? Dimension 4 if focused on the effect that time has on our learning.

After we learn something, we should review it - fairly frequently at first, and less often as time goes on and the material is more strongly connected in our brains. This type of learning is called Spaced Repetition Learning and I will be discussing it more in future posts because it is one of the cores behind my personal training program.

Here's a picture to illustrate:

Each upward spike represents someone learning or reviewing the material. After each presentation, the downward sloping line represents the forgetting that happens between presentations. As time goes on, forgetting slows and retention increases for each repetition. There are factors that effect this of course, including Dimensions 1, 2, and 3 as well as things like emotional state during learning, fatigue, and other factors.

To maximize Dimension 4, we should have a regular routine of reviewing material we've learned in the past. You can use spreadsheets, calendars, and other tools to do so. There are also some commercial programs that use sophisticated algorithms to determine the optimum spacing (not too frequently or not too long between repetitions). I use this type of program - Supermemo - in my own training regimen.


I hope that you will use the 4 Dimensions of Learning in your own chess endeavors. I didn't create 4D to come up with a new theory of learning. Instead, I needed a practical way to know whether I was getting the most out of my chess study. I checked that the material I was studying was relevant and challenging, I monitored myself while studying to make sure I was engaged in the material, and I put the material through systematic review over time to make sure I retained it and could apply it. I wish you success in using it as well. As always, I wish you the best of luck, and of course Better Chess!


The 4D Model of Learning is not a sophisticated model based on some academic theory. It is simply a result of asking myself what elements need to be in place for learning to be most effective. I have been influenced by several books and authors, including:

Supermemo: Based on Dr. Piotr Wozniak's research on memory, it is a program that helps space out learning repetitions for items of learning. This site includes some of the research behind spaced repetition. I will be doing some tutorial videos on how I use Supermemo in my training.

Brain Rules by John Medina. This book has a lot of neat information on how our brains work and the types of things we should do to maximize our brain's performance and memory.

The Talent Code: by Daniel Coyle. This book discusses (although he doesn't use this term) the concept of engagement in one's training. He looks at it from the viewpoint of world class athletes, musicians, and authors, but it's very interesting and relevant to chess as well.

Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoffrey Colvin. This is one of my favorite books that I have read through several times. In it is he describes Deliberate Practice, a process by which someone gets better than something. If you do read it, notice the similarities of the first 3 Dimensions. I will be also doing some posts describing Deliberate Practice and how it can be applied to chess training.

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