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Friday, July 22, 2016

Integration: The Second Stage to Mastering Chess

Integrating Our Knowledge



Last week, I discussed the three stages toward mastering an art such as chess. These three stages are:
  • Imitation
  • Integration
  • Innovation
We focused on the Imitation Stage last week. That stage involves studying the moves and games of the great masters of the past and present in order to develop a base of knowledge. 

If a player does this enough, eventually things will start to click. He will start playing moves that were once hard to find but now seem obvious. He will think thoughts such as "Why didn't I see this before?" 

Before I delve into how to move into the Integration stage, it is important to remember and accept that we must go through the Imitation stage before getting to the Integration stage. There are no shortcuts! So if you haven't read my article on Imitation, do so now!

Characteristics of the Integration Stage

"When I was eleven, I just got good."
-Bobby Fischer

There isn't always a clear demarcation between the Imitation Stage and the Integration Stage. As I mentioned in the last article, often times you will be at various stages with various aspects of chess. Often, things just seem to "click" as they did for the eleven-year-old Bobby Fischer.

In my own progress from the Imitation to the Integration Stage, I noticed a few key breakthroughs in understanding I made along the way. Below are a few examples.

Understanding the Tradeoffs between Material and Other Imbalances

Most players when they start out are very concerned about material. Indeed, it is a very important aspect of chess. However, as Jeremy Silman explains eloquently in How to Reassess Your Chess, it is but one of several imbalances.

I think all players at some level understand that we should try to improve our position while preventing our opponent from improving theirs. However, for a long time, I (and I believe many players) are essentially materialists - or kinghunters.

I think a significant move from Imitation to Integration occurred when I truly understood when and why other imbalances outweighed material (other than a sacrifice to force mate).

Some examples of this include:

  • Sacrificing the exchange in order to get control over key squares. 
Here's an example that impressed me.


  • Sacrificing a pawn to clear a square or line.
  • Foregoing a material gain in order to maintain the intiative. 
Here is a famous example of declining to win material for a greater positional advantage.


    In short, you begin to understand "Why" as well as "How" good moves are made in chess. Integration happens when the many various pieces of knowledge that you learn during the Imitation stage start to come together - hence "integration."

    Getting Past the Positional "Shiny and New"

    Reading How to Reassess Your Chess and Sunil Weermantry's Best Lessons of a Chess Coach opened a whole new world for me. Positional play started to give me some direction in what types of moves to make. However, because I didn't have a minimum level of integration, each new positional element I discovered was like a hammer and every chess position looked like a nail.

    The following game excerpt from Best Lessons of a Chess Coach among other things introduced me to the concept of the knight outpost.



    After this game, I played a friendly game with a friend. Jeremy Silman wrote in How to Reassess Your Chess that an advanced outpost was so important that it was worth a few moves or even a pawn to create one. So I spent five or six moves creating an outpost for my knight on my opponent's queenside. I was so proud of my achievement!

    However, the knight was so far from the action of the game that I ended up losing to a kingside attack. As my friend told me, "Everyone on the planet knew you were creating that outpost for your knight. None of us knew what the knight was going to do once it got there."

    As I progressed in my understanding, I learned when it was appropriate to use this positional tool and most importantly - where! Integration combines each newly learned element of chess knowledge and puts it into the context of our other knowledge.

    Question Everything

    "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."
    -Albert Einstein

    To move from the Imitation stage to the Integration stage, it is helpful to become a master of asking questions when you are studying chess. In the Imitation stage, I recommend not dwelling too long on moves that were too difficult to understand.

    There are a couple reasons for this. First, because in that first stage you would be devouring much chess information that is new, it is important to let you brain digest it and process it. Some of this happens subconsciously as you see repeated examples of the same theme.

    Second, and this is very important to understand - at the beginning stages, players simply are not ready for advanced concepts. It is not that they are not intelligent enough to learn it. It is that they have not developed the consciousness of chess knowledge. In a way, players during the Imitation stage do not know what questions to ask!

    Put another way, before you can write a coherent sentence, one must learn the alphabet.

    However, once this "alphabet" has been learned through the proper books and materials, aspiring players should continue to seek out the knowledge they need to progress, asking questions along the way to guide them.

    What are some examples of the types of questions I'm talking about? Ultimately, you will need to develop your own questions, but here are some examples.
    • Why did the master play this particular move?
    • What was the plan behind this move or maneuver?
    • What other opening structures might this concept be used? 
    • How does this game fit into my overall understanding of the game?
    • What did I learn during this game that I didn't understand before?
    • What don't I understand? (This is useful when seeking out what to study next)
    The more questions you ask and seek to answer, through your accumulated knowledge and experience, the more you will integrate your knowledge into a cohesive whole.

    Testing Your Knowledge


    One basic method from moving from Imitation to Integration besides questions is to continually test, compare, and revise your thinking. 


    There are several training methods you can use to do this. 

    • Solitaire Chess: Find a good annotated game collection and play through the games. You can find detailed instructions in an article I wrote on the Chess Improver site
    • Annotate and Compare: A variation on Solitaire Chess would be to annotate an non-annotated score of a game and then compare it to the notes from the master. 
    • Training Positions: Find a position that you feel you understand well, and then play it out against a training partner or the computer. For example, you might practice the minority attack either as the attacker or defender. Compare your play with the master source game.
    The key behind these exercises is to see where your understanding needs improvement, and continue to study those areas.

    Annotate and Integrate


    When you play a game or study a game, try to look at each position from different angles. I encourage you to annotate chess games, both yours and master games you come across. Follow the example of Mikhail Botvinnik, and publish your games on your favorite chess forum. 

    Here are some things to keep in mind when you annotate games.
    • Try to understand moves from different angles. For example, looking at moves from both a strategic and tactical view.
    Consider the following position.





    • Try to connect positional and tactical motifs to the opening structures they come from. For example, the exchange sacrifice on c3 common in the Sicilian Dragon or the ...f5 pawn break in the King's Indian Defense.
    • Connect the plans of the players with the pawn structures. For example, how do the masters attack pawn weaknesses such as isolated or backward pawns. 
    • Which minor pieces do the masters keep in specific situations. Note them and try to explain the reasoning behind these plans.
    • Try to use words when possible to explain what's happening. It is true that sometimes positions require variations to explain complex tactical ideas, but for most amateur players, this eventually evolves into relying on computer generated analysis - which is pretty much useless in helping those player improve.
    • Regarding the chess engines, don't use any analysis that you can't explain in plain words. If you can't explain it, you probably don't understand it. I'm not saying that you shouldn't use the chess engine at all, but I've seen so many examples of players who use the chess engines to analyze their games and have no idea why the moves the engine spits out is the best move. 
    • Try your best, and don't worry if you don't get it always get it right. You are doing this to improve your understanding of chess.

    Conclusion


    The first stage of mastery was Imitation - studying the play of the masters through annotated games and positions. Once you have developed your chess vocabulary through this study, you will start moving into the Integration stage - where all of the knowledge you accumulated will start to make sense. In this article we've explored a few ways to enhance this progression through the use of questions, the active testing of your knowledge, and through annotating games - both yours and others' games.

    Most players do not make it past the Integration Stage - and some don't reach it. It takes a lot of work and study as well as a persistent curiosity to understand "Why." Those who reach Integration but not the next step - Innovation - become what author Michael Minkoff calls a skilled "craftsman." 

    This is not a bad place to be. At this stage, you can play decent chess games and understand at some level the games of world class players. Indeed, you must pass through this stage to make the final stage even possible. 

    We'll discuss that next time. Until then, I wish you good luck and better chess!

    Check out the next part of this series - Innovation: The Third Stage to Mastering Chess.

    Your Turn


    Did you find this article helpful? Which of the training ideas will you try this coming week? Let me know how it went.

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