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Friday, August 26, 2016

Chess Advice to My Younger Self (Part 1)

Introduction


Do you ever think back and say to yourself, "If I had only done X I would be much further than I am now" or something similar? The truth of course is that we can't turn back time. However, perhaps some of you can learn from my experience. 

Although I learned how to play chess at a young age, I didn't really study chess until I was in my 20's. (You can read more about my story on my About page). My first USCF Chess rating was 1071. I am currently rated 1810 (although admittedly I haven't competed in USCF-rated tournaments in a couple years). 

In this article, I will share the advice - as well as some practical training suggestions - I would have given to my younger self at each of the earlier stages of development.

This will be a two part article - advice for Classes D and E this week, and advice for Classes B and C next week.

Caveat: My chess needs at each of these levels may have been different then your needs currently. However, in talking to a lot of players over the years at various levels, I think the advice should be applicable to many.

Class E (USCF 1000-1200)


At this point, I knew some general opening principles as well as a few elementary checkmates. However, when it came to the middlegame, I just kind of floundered around. I often won or lost depending on who left a queen en prise. 

The general advice at this stage and every stage thereafter is to study tactics to avoid this. However, I think this is only part of the problem. I think the main problem for me was to understand the general flow of a chess game and how to use the pieces to attack and defend together according to a plan. 

So the advice I would give myself at this stage would be to devour annotated master games written for beginners in mind. The following articles I have written have a list of books you can check out:
Read through these games and make sure you understand most of what you are reading. Don't try to memorize the games or understand every little nuance. Try to develop a feel for how good chess looks. 

At this time, I also started using a database to store and analyze my games. This is critical, and the following links are helpful if you don't do this yet.

Class D (USCF 1200-1400)


Class D was kind of a fun time. I felt like I had some decent games (at the time) with some actual plans and a few tactical combinations. Also, at this point, I could pretty much beat anyone in my family who wasn't a competitive chess player. However, there are a few things I would have done differently.

First, I would have starting playing tougher competition. I did win a couple class tournaments here and there against other sub-1400 players, but I think this hampered my development because I wasn't getting punished for my mistakes. You can check out my article for more detail about who you should be playing to improve

If you're a Class D player, you don't have to play in the Open Section against Experts and above to improve. Just play in more U1600 events. This advice means you won't win as many tournaments. In fact, you will lost more games this way. But trust me, the acceleration in your chess development will be worth it. Particularly if you have followed the Class E advice of studying your games and devouring master games.

At this stage, I think I started focusing on playing "trick" openings and gambit openings that were generally unsound, but fun to play and occasionally picked up a win against an unprepared or unsuspecting opponent. Don't do this! This is like learning the "Rope-a-dope" technique in boxing and hoping to trick your opponent instead of solid fundamental jabs, cross, hooks, and uppercuts. 

When it comes to openings at this stage, I recommend experimenting with various openings, but stick with sound (or somewhat sound) openings that you can play for a while. No need to go too deeply into any particular opening variation because I believe you should experience a bunch of different positions as part of your development and there is a lot of other aspects of chess to study - such as positional play, endgames, tactics, etc.

I spent way too much time trying to study a narrow opening repertoire and memorizing variations. This definitely hindered my development so avoid this trap at this stage. 

Conclusion


Each stage of my development as a chess player came with its own challenges. In the beginning, it was understanding how to get from general opening principles to a position where I could checkmate my opponent - or force him to resign. As I improved, I learned that I could only get so far with trick openings and had to learn "proper" chess in order to progress. In the next installment, I'll share the advice I would have given myself when I was a Class C and Class B player.

I hope you enjoyed this article. It was a reflective exercise for me as I  reviewed my progress and growth over the years. I hope you can learn from my experiences and I hope to develop myself as a player more in the future so I can share even more with you.

Good luck and as always, Better Chess!


Your Turn

If you liked this article, be sure to check out Part 2, where I give advice to my Class C and Class B former self. Also, please share this article with your other chess friends!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Improving Your Chess with Deep Work

Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.
--Cal Newport
Our society is increasingly becoming one of short attention spans and distractions. Much of this has to do with the internet and the prevalence of distractions such as social media, smartphones, instant messaging, and other "tools" which can be used productively, but often are used to direct our focus and keep our brains "entertained" instead of actually helping us to be productive.

In chess - or at least in my own training - I find we have similar distractions. Between reading the tweets of chess grandmasters to playing a few dozen blitz or bullet games on the internet, I often find myself distracted from doing the very things that can actually help me improve in chess.

After a long day at work and then spending time with my wife and children, it is very tempting to watch the video recap of recent chess tournament commentary or some blitz commentary on Youtube instead of analyzing one of my recent losses.

Do you find this in your own life?

On the long flight to and from the Philippines - with a total of over 30 hours in the airplane - I had the opportunity to read an insightful book by Cal Newport called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. In this book, Newport - a computer science professor at Georgetown University among other things - discussed the issues underlying the statements I made above.

The premise of his book is that in a world where people have less ability to focus and produce value, those who are able to should be able to thrive, as there will be less competition. The book then lays out a few rules and guidelines on how to go about developing this ability.

There were several applications to chess, which is what we will discuss in this article.

What is Deep Work


Cal Newport defines Deep Work as the following:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Mr. Newport is mainly referring to knowledge workers who make their living producing, calculating, or doing this with information that can't easily be done by a computer. He gives examples such as producing computer code, writing books and articles, or creating art such as music or painting. I think studying and training in chess are similar. 

By including "hard to replicate" in the definition, he is referring to activities that require training or education. For example, teaching someone to check answers on a multiple choice test does not require much training or skill. However, interpreting and editing mathematical proofs or long form written prose require much training, skill, and experience to do well. 

Here are some chess examples of what I would consider Deep Chess Work:
  • Playing Solitaire Chess for an hour or two then following up with an hour of analyzing your results.
  • Doing standard tactics on Chess Tempo for an hour or 90 minutes without distraction.
  • Playing long time control games against the appropriate competition.
  • Analyzing without the use of computer chess engine assistance - particularly with complicated positions.
The keys to these activities is actively stretching one's limits as well as doing it for an extended period of time. This type of work is arduous when you put your mind into it, and many casual players often avoid this type of work. However, those who do these things will benefit greatly.

Specifically, I have found the following benefits from increasing the depth of my chess study and training.

  • Ability to assess and analyze positions deeper and more accurately. I think part of this is the patience developed by practicing it during my tactics and analysis sessions.
  • Increased tactical vigilance - in my calculations, I find that I am able to see threats several moves further than before.
  • Improved mental endurance during long time control games. Again, I think having longer study sessions - e.g. 90 minutes to two hours - have helped me to focus for longer.

The Shallows


Mr. Newport defines Shallow Work as:
Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Now, he does go into detail in the book that not all "shallow" work is bad, and in fact some is necessary in many jobs. For example, if you are a customer service representative, your work is critical for the success of your company, but it isn't necessarily cognitively demanding and can often be done with Facebook or Twitter in the background. This isn't meant to be demeaning, but instead as an example to differentiate between deep and shallow work.

In chess, I think we also have many activities that can be defined as shallow work. Some of it, we have to do and indeed I think some of the activities can be used in conjunction with the type of deep work activities I mentioned above. 

Here are some examples of "productive" shallow chess activities:
  • Looking up your openings in opening manuals.
  • Repeating your opening lines for memorization (within moderation)
  • Checking your analysis with chess engines.
  • Post-mortem discussion of your games (which can become deep work depending on how intense your analysis is with your opponent/partners)
  • Studying chess books (which again can become deep work depending on focus and attention)
  • Organizing your chess databases.
All of the activities in the above list cannot be categorized as Deep Work because they don't push your cognitive limits and do not require your unique abilities to complete. However, these activities are beneficial as they help to increase your knowledge and are often needed to help consolidate and organize the work that was done in the Deep Chess Work listed above.

Here are some examples of "non-productive" shallow chess work:
  • Excessive Blitz and Bullet games
  • Watching excessive chess videos
  • Playing online chess while flipping over to Youtube, Facebook, or Netflix (I've been guilty of all three)
  • "Casual" chess engine analysis (where no effort is made to understand the position on your own)
Regarding the last list, all of these activities can have some value, but they don't necessarily stretch the limits of your capabilities and are often done for entertainment and distraction rather than for improvement. 

Chess is meant to be enjoyed, so I'm not telling you to avoid all the "shallows" totally. However, only you can determine whether or not your time spent in the shallows might be better allocated - at least partially - towards Deep Chess Work.

Practical Suggestions


I'm like many of you. I have a full time career, children, and other responsibilities. So being able to piece together a couple hours here and there to train and study is often difficult. However, I believe that increasing the amount of deep chess work in your training will yield great dividends over time. 

Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
  • Track the amount of deep work you currently do to get a baseline. Check out my article on measuring your chess for some guidelines on doing this.
  • Schedule your deep chess work. For example, three days a week I get up an hour early to get some training in before my children get up.
  • Reduce your shallow work such as blitz games and videos. Replace those sessions with deeper work.
  • Work with training partners who will keep you accountable. For example, I have a partner whom I send my annotated games to. He doesn't have to study my games - but he knows to expect them and it adds some positive pressure to analyze my games.
  • Reduce other distractions such as social media while you're doing chess work on the computer. When I first tried doing this, I found it difficult not to click open Facebook while doing some analysis.
  • Commit to analyzing withoutchess engine assistance for a set time (and use a timer). For example, analyze your own game for an hour before checking your variations with the engine.
  • Occasionally have a long training or study session lasting say two hours. This can include long time control games if you do not play them very often.

Resources


Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. This book is very interesting and a fairly quick read. I highly recommend it.

Interview with Cal Newport on the Psychology Podcast. An interesting discussion that compares Deep Work to concepts like deliberate practice and flow.

Conclusion


Let's face it, chess is getting faster and our attention spans are getting shorter. The volume of chess videos (which can be beneficial) and blitz and bullet chess (which can also have some value) have overshadowed deep work. This is exacerbated (at least for adult chess players) by responsibilities of work and family which prevent us both logistically and in terms of energy to pursue hard deep chess work. 

However, if we can create a few habits and seek out opportunities to increase the moments of deep chess work, I believe our skill and knowledge will benefit greatly.

Go deep and play better chess!

Your Turn


What type of deep chess activities do you enjoy? Share it in the comments!

Friday, August 12, 2016

Innovation: The Third Stage to Mastering Chess

Insight into Wisdom

In some ways a genius is nothing more than a person who is unwilling to quit when he is discouraged by frequent failures and unwilling to settle when he is universally affirmed.  
--Michael Minkoff 
It is with some difficulty that I write this final installment of the stages toward mastery. In the first stage, Imitation, we accumulate knowledge. In the second stage, Integration, this knowledge coalesces into a personal worldview - in this case, of chess.

In this final stage, we understand the knowledge and concepts of the first two stages at such a level, that we can combine and create them into something new. This is the stage of Innovation.

I don't consider myself to have reached this stage, so I am pleased to supplement my thoughts with a few generous insights provided for this article from friend and grandmaster Nigel Davies of tigerchess.com. (You can also read an interesting interview I conducted with him).

Redefining Genius

Artist: Jeremy Adams
Part of progressing toward the Innovation stage is realizing that it isn't something mystical that you are born with. It would be naive to underestimate or ignore the role that innate talent or ability may play in the development of skill in any art including chess, However, we must also appreciate the role that consistent and prolonged effort play toward our improvement.

In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoffrey Colvin asserts that it is the immense amount of deliberate practice conducted over years that creates world-class levels of skill. Colvin cites the story of the Polgar sisters (well known to us chess fans), and how their father developed methods of training for them which took all of them to high levels of chess proficiency - in particular Judit, who had spent many years as one of the top then players in the world.

In the article that inspired this series, author Michael Minkoff discusses this interaction between innate talent and work fairly clearly:

Genius is both innate and learned. If Mozart had not been a “performing monkey” in his very early toddler years, he would not have had the skills necessary to execute his genius. It is hard to say whether his genius already existed in his younger years, simply because at that time it evidenced itself as a proclivity, not an already-established body of new ideas.
I think many people (chess player or not) thinks that mastery is something your born with, not something you can create. However, examples such as Mozart - whose father was a professional musician who drove him to practice and perform from a very young age - or the Polgar sisters - whose father also drove them to work hard towards learning chess from a young age - demonstrate that it takes not only talent but also hard focused work to create "genius" level skill.

Innovation is not necessarily a statethat one reaches after crossing some mythical threshold. Perhaps it is a culmination of accumulated knowledge and skills accumulated over time - e.g. passing through the Imitation and Integration stages.

I asked Nigel about any specific processes that he used to reach his level of mastery of chess. His response helps to illustrate the importance of this attainment of knowledge and subsequent understanding:

Overall I'd say it was a cumulative process over many years. But one thing I did that I think helped me a lot was just to play around with certain ideas on a pocket set. It wasn't so much formal study as experimentation.
He brings up another very good point here, in that besides a lot of study and hard work, Innovation requires independent thinking and experimentation - which means putting your own thoughts and ideas on the line.

Independent Thinking and Experimentation


A key ingredient to reaching the stage is the be able to think independently as well as experiment. In a previous interview with me, National Master Jim West who attributes his progress from expert level to master level on his ability to think independently.

Although one of the premises of this article is that Innovation builds upon the knowledge and experience accumulated during the Imitation and Innovation stages, thinking critically and experimenting can start early in development, as GM Davies shared with me:
For me thinking up my own ideas has been an essential part of the development process. Actually I did it from very early on, though my first experiments just weren't very good.

Of course, experimentation often works best when you are grounded in the foundations of the art. As mentioned in the previous installments, both for visual artists such as painters as well as chess players, having studied the classic masters for both arts are critical stepping stones for future mastery.

A characteristic of masters (and future masters) to apply independent thinking and experimentation is the ability to endure failure. This takes humility as well as courage.

Compelling Incentive


Pushing oneself toward mastery take a lot of hard work as well as the courage and humility to experiment despite potential failure. One other element that it takes is the motivation and determination to push past obstacles and not quit.

For chess players, there are many motivations. For some, it is the satisfaction derived from creating something aesthetically pleasing. For others, it is a competition and they want to see how far up the ladder they can climb. And maybe for some like myself, it is a path towards self-awareness and personal development. Understanding your "Why" is just as important as the "How" and the "What" of becoming a chess master.

In several books, including Unlimited ChallengeFormer World Champion Garry Kasparov talks about the "need" for Anatoly Karpov in reaching his greatest creative levels. Without someone on Karpov's level to push him to his limits, he would not be able to have achieved what he did. Indeed, he lamented that it was a shame that Fischer never faced Karpov in a World Championship match, as he postulated that it would have pushed Fischer's own creative production to an even higher peak.

This is one reason why it is important to play stronger players than yourself. I have written about this elsewhere (and I dedicated an article to it). This would include playing in higher sections at tournaments as well as seeking out competitive situations that will stretch your limits.

"Getting There"


One thing I noticed when discussing this issue with GM Davies as well as studying the process and acquisition of mastery in general is that those who reach it understand that they are at a certain level, but most continue to strive for more. 

In fact, when I first approached Nigel with the concept of innovation and mastery, he noted that it felt it would be difficult for him and other masters to answer some of these questions, because for him it appears to be a constant journey. 

I asked him what it felt like to be at a level of mastery:

I feel it now sometimes, when I'm analyzing with other people and we both know that I'm operating on a higher level to them. There again players stronger than myself make me feel as if I'm working things out too slowly.
This response belied both an acknowledgement of reaching a certain level, but also a recognition that perhaps it was a continuum. Knowing Nigel, there is also a sense of humility in his response, as I have found with many of the highest performers in many fields.

Nigel generously shared a game in which he felt a sense of mastery. The overall sense for me was that of GM Davies calmly placing his pieces where they need to be at the appropriate moment, responding to the threats of his opponent (himself a FIDE master) without undue haste or force. There is a sense of ease as the wave of aggression from Black dissipates, leaving him lost and surrendering as White's own counter-wave is about to rise.

The comments to the game are from GM Davies, with the exception of one observation of mine indicated towards the end of the game.



Unending Journey


As we come upon the conclusion of the current discussion, I hope you have noted that the Innovation stage and the "attainment" of mastery isn't a single destination, like landing at a destination after a long flight. Instead, it is like a point on a long journey.

Indeed, from observing masters in chess and other fields like art, sports, and business, I notice masters or high level performers always going back to early stages of development. Chess masters continually seek out new ideas not only on their own, but by studying the games of other players. As mentioned before, they do not let their ego stop them from using an idea that was discovered by someone else.

As the master continually jumps back to the Imitation and Integration stages, this provides them with a broader and deeper understanding from which to continue to Innovate. 

We as humble non-masters, should seek to imitate their example.

Conclusion


I hope you found our discussion on the process of mastery both enjoyable and useful. To conclude our conversation, I wanted to give you a few takeaways from this article as well as a final clarification on the Innovation stage of the process of becoming a master.

Some practical advice:

  • When your own curiosity leads you to question the opinion of authority, pursue your curiosity. Whether your research ends in a new discovery or in confirmation of the previous view, it will be profitable for your development.
  • Learn to embrace failure and set-backs in your training and development as a necessary part of progress.
  • Don't worry about what you perceive to be your "potential" or "talent" - study and train as if you had no limits - don't give up!
  • Seek out challenges that will drive you to work hard and expand your horizons - occasionally play up a class in tournaments or seek higher rated players when playing on the internet.
  • Recognize that mastery is not a destination, but a journey. Be patient with yourself and strive to make continual progress on a daily and weekly basis. 
Finally, I wanted to make a clarification. Innovating is not just about coming up with theoretical novelties or new systems of thought to chess. It's about insight which can be used to meet the needs with the tools and constraints that one has. For an artist or writer, it is about meeting the needs of one's audience using the tools of medium (for visual artists) and words (for writers). 

For the chess player, it is using the 64 squares and pieces and pawns on the board to meet the needs of a particular position. Sometimes it requires a new treatment - resulting in a theoretical novelty - while sometimes the tried and true really is the best method. It takes the knowledge and experience as well as the courage and humility to understand the difference. This is mastery.

To conclude I share Minkoff's words:
To summarize, the spirit of imitation pursues how. The spirit of integration pursues why. The spirit of innovation pursues what, when, and where.

Your Turn


Did you find this article helpful? Tell me where you think you are in this process and tell me what you are up to. Also, if you enjoyed this article, please share it.

Until next time, good luck and Better Chess.