Friday, May 30, 2014

3 Ways to Get the Edge in Chess (Part 2)

Question: What does flossing and chess training have in common?

Answer: They are both easy to do, but if you neglect them, your teeth and your chess skill will decay!

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about the importance of your philosophy in your attitudes and actions towards chess and other parts of life. In this installment, I'm going to discuss how mastering the mundane - the simple, little, sometimes boring things - can dramatically improve your chess results over time.

Master the Mundane

Many chess players I know (myself included at times) are always looking for the "quantum leap" - that new opening gambit, that chess software or book - that will propel them into the next class of chess. Unfortunately (or fortunately once you read this article), the answer is often found in the simple, routine things we do every day and every week that truly matter in improving at chess.

I recently played a FIDE master online. The time control was 90 30 (90 minutes plus 30 seconds for each move). However, I used less than 30 minutes of my time while my opponent had used about an hour by the time the game was over. I lost and after the game my opponent asked me, "Why didn't you use more of your time?"

The actual answers to his question is a topic for another article perhaps, but the question he asked was very insightful. Notice that he didn't ask, "Why didn't you play X in this opening variation?" OR "Didn't you notice the long term endgame inferiority you would have incurred when you played Y? "

I have observed that sometimes I look for something external to blame for my losses - the next move in opening theory that I didn't know, or the endgame position that I haven't learned. Of course, I do believe that we need to increase our knowledge in chess especially at beginner and intermediate levels.

However, I think sometimes we overlook the internal reasons for our losses. This would include things like being careful, doing a safety check before we make our move, and managing our time wisely during our games (in my case using more of my time to make better decisions). It also includes more subtle things like focus and attention, eliminating distractions, and being well rested. I think we need a to balance improving both the internal and external factors in our pursuit of chess improvement.

Easy to Do, Easy Not to Do

There are several reasons that we undervalue or ignore the mundane in our chess training. The first is given pretty plainly in Jeff Olsen's The Slight Edge. These things are easy to do. How hard is it to use more of your time on your chess clock? They are also easy not to do. We can see this clearly in other parts of our lives. For example, think about flossing, going to bed on time, exercise, and even saying "I love you" to your children.

Another reason we ignore the mundane is that we don't see the effects right away. I was reading a thread on a chess forum (I will not link to it to protect the innocent) about analyzing our own games - which inspired another article I will write soon. One of the people wrote that he only analyzed the games where he thought both he and his opponent played well. I thought to myself, "What percentage of your games is that?"

His point was that he felt that it was not worth analyzing a game in which he or his opponent blundered really badly. However, I think these are exactly the games that we need to pay attention to and analyze the reasons we make those mistakes! Now...maybe a grandmaster doesn't need to necessarily analyze a big blunder he made if he only does it in 2% of his games, but for an amateur player this probably happens in at least half of his games. How much do you think your strength would improve if you reduced your blunders by 50%?

It is perhaps painful to do some of these mundane things, but over time, day by day, these little things add up to dramatic changes. Consider the following picture:

Imagine all of your study, training, and habits filling a cup. For a while, you may not notice a difference (although you might). However, after weeks and months of doing something simple to positively improve your chess, something "clicks" and you see a sudden rise in your playing strength.

One such jump happened for me several years ago. I had a chess lesson with GM Greg Serper. I was fortunate because he lived in the same city I did at the time and had the lesson in person. We only had one lesson, but I learned many insights. One of the things he said to me that has stuck with me was "we should not be so concerned with our opponent's mistakes as with our own." Ever since then I was an avid annotator of my games, especially my losses. I was rated around 1200 at the time, but rose steadily over a year to 1400. The following year, I made a similar rise from 1400 to 1600. Although I did a lot of things at that time to improvement chess, including reading several key foundational chess books, studying tactics, and playing good competition, that mundane (and sometimes painful) practice of studying my losses was essential to my improvement, and continues to be to this day.

Some Good News

It is always difficult to suggest that someone change what they're doing. However, the changes don't need to be extreme, and the more you do them, the easier it gets. Experts in the field of behavior change universally agree that about 21 to 30 days of practicing a new habit will make it fairly permanent and habitual. In the realm of chess (as well as fitness and other endeavors), the practice also becomes easier.

When I first started analyzing my losses, it was like pulling teeth. However, after the first dozen, I started systematizing my work and organizing in my database. It became a creative outlet, trying to understand myself while also trying to increase the quality of my annotations and analysis. The difficult became easier.

I have a good friend who lost about 180 pounds over the course of a year. I asked him how he did it. His answer was profound and yet so simple: "Well, I started to walk as far as I could. At first, it was just to the end of the street. Then the next day, it was a couple houses further. Then after about a month, I started to jog. After three months, I walked a 5K..." His program didn't involve doing interval training or scheduling rest periods and perhaps exercise trainers wouldn't necessarily think it was the best way to do it. However, I found it quite elegant in its simplicity and we can't argue with the results. He did something mundane - He walked as far as he could every day. And he did it for 365 straight days - maybe he took a few days off, but you get my point.

Your Turn

I hope you have found this article interesting and insightful. Now it is your turn to take some action. Here is a list of mundane practices I have developed and practiced over the years (not necessarily daily, but regularly). Maybe one or two of them are things you can add to your regimen:
  • Annotating my losses
  • Studying tactical problems
  • Going into each game with a couple mental objectives (I'll write more on this in another article)
  • Asking my opponent is he wants to discuss the game afterwards (when time allows)
  • Looking up a master game in the opening variation of a game I just played
  • Taking a short walk before each of my tournament games
  • Not looking at other boards during an Over-the-Board tournament
This is not an exhaustive list. You will notice that each of these things are not very complicated or take very long to do. However, each of these things have helped me over the years.

I hope you will follow-up and apply this concept to your own training. Please comment and let me know what you are going to try and how it works out. As always, I wish you good luck and Better Chess!


The Slight Edge: Turning Simple Disciplines into Massive Success and Happiness by Jeff Olsen. This book has helped me change my life as well as my chess training. I think it's a must read for any person wanting to improve any aspect in their life, from business to parenting to chess.

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