Sunday, February 12, 2017

Principles of Effective Chess Training (Part 2)

My confidence comes from the daily grind - training my butt off day in and day out.
-Hope Solo, Olympic and professional soccer player

In Part 1 of this 2-part series, we discussed the first two of four principles of effective training. The four principles are:

  • Appropriateness of training - e.g. skill level, complexity, modality, etc.
  • Having clear objectives - knowing what you want to improve or the goal of the training task.
  • Having feedback loops to regulate and adjust the training activities.
  • Systematically reviewing the learned material or skills to ensure retention.
So this week, we will be going into more detail about feedback loops and systematic review.

Feedback Loops

I am writing after having recently watched the 2017 Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons started off very well and had a 28-3 lead early in the 3rd quarter. Many people thought that the New England Patriots were done for. However, as my Buffalo Bills have found out many times over the years, Tom Brady and the Patriots weren't finished until the final whistle blows. 

Sure enough, the Patriots, led by a rejuvenated Tom Brady (who didn't play will in the first half of the game) came back to tie it and eventually win it in overtime. Although it was a history making event - the biggest comeback in a Super Bowl as well as the first overtime in a Super Bowl - I wasn't surprised by the outcome.

One thing that I read about the Patriots years ago was that head coach Bill Belichick and his team were excellent at making halftime adjustments. I'd seen this pattern firsthand when the Patriots played the Bills: New England starts slow, goes into half time slightly behind, then comes back to crush the Bills in the second half.

Well, the point of this story is that feedback loops are like coach Belichick's halftime adjustments. They help us adjust our path when we go astray. 

We have a lot of feedback loops in our life that regulate our behavior. For example, when we perform our profession properly and do what we are employed to do, we received positive feedback in terms of a paycheck and perhaps some praise from either clients, customers, or managers. If we choose not to eat for a very long time, our body will soon give us negative feedback in terms of hunger.

How can we apply this to our chess training? Here are a few ideas:
  • We can analyze our games - see my article Seven Questions to Ask Yourself After Each Chess Game for a process to do this - to find out mistakes and as I discuss in that article to also find our good moves! By doing this, we can reinforce the good aspects of our game (positive or reinforcing feedback) and we can also try to reduce our mistakes or the type of thinking that led to that mistake (negative or balancing feedback). 
  • We can post our games on public forums for others to see and comment on. This has the effect of both motivating us to play our best during our games, but also provides the feedback mechanism of their comments, praise, and criticism to help us adjust our play.
  • Tactics servers such as Chessity and Chess Tempo give you immediate feedback when you get a problem right or wrong. I like Chessity because it gives you a pleasant "ding" of a bell when you get a problem correct and a slightly harsh buzzer when you get the problem incorrect. 
  • Schedule it into your routine to get feedback or review your games. My article on chess workflows explains how to create these useful routines.
  • Journal about your insights you gain after your training sessions and games. Schedule times periodically - e.g. weekly or monthly - to review these insights and see if you should make any additions or changes to your training.
Without feedback, it's hard to know what we need to do to improve. An analogy I found very useful to understand this is that it's like "bowling with a curtain in front of the pins."

For more information about feedback loops, check out this article by James Clear.

Systematic Review

We get appropriate study material. We are clear about what we want to learn or improve. We have set up some useful feedback loops. All of this means nothing if we don't remember.

The fact is that we as humans have memories that fail us at times (especially as we age - which I'm noticing a lot more these last couple years). Or perhaps the more accurate way to look at it is that our access to our memories fails us at times.

Since our memories are not perfect, we need to review what we have learned regularly in order to remember and apply it when it matters most - during our games.

Now if you've taken care of the first three steps, you're ahead of the game. The previous principles we've discussed will ensure that the knowledge you've learned is in its best state for future recall. Before I discuss some ideas on how you can review systematically, here are a few more tips about learning and memory:

  • Strive for understanding before memorization. For examples, it will be much harder to remember complex opening variations if you do not understand the underlying tactical and strategic reasons behind the moves.
  • Start from simple to complex. This is one reason why studying the endgame is so effective in helping you improve your overall game. By understanding the power and nuances of each piece in the endgame, your handling of these pieces in the middlegame and opening will improve naturally.
  • Build upon your existing knowledge. Our memories work like the internet in a way...the more links that a piece of knowledge to other knowledge in our memories, the better we understand it and the more likely we are to remember it. For example, studying positions from your opening repertoire or from your own games are easier to remember than other positions.
The general idea behind systematic review is to refresh your memory and to strengthen these memories so that they can be recalled during your games. An effective method of this is called spaced repetition. Basically, you attempt to recall knowledge over time. I've discussed this concept in previous articles, and I think it's a great way to combat forgetting.

How can you apply spaced repetition and systematic review to your training? Here are a few ideas I use in my training:
  • You can try certain software that incorporate spaced repetition. For openings, you can check out Chessable or Chess Position Trainer. (You can read my Chessable review). Although it's not chess-specific, I also enjoy using Supermemo which first introduced me to the concept of spaced repetition. 
Chess Position Trainer schedules your review

  • You can schedule a weekly review of specific positions you want to remember. I got this idea from Chess Master at Any Age by Rolf Wetzell (who creates sets of flashcards). On a weekly basis, I review tactical problems I got wrong on Chess Tempo and Chessity.
I review the "red" problems on a weekly basis (Chess Tempo screenshot)

  • Consider setting up "theme" days for reviewing certain parts of your game. For example, you might schedule days for reviewing your opening repertoire from either the white side or the black side. 
  • When I'm first learning a more complex endgame, I will schedule a weekly session to practice it against the computer. As I feel I understand it, I will increase the time in between practice sessions.
The idea is to have a system or routine to review material you have learned. Some material you may know so well that you don't need to set up a way to review it. For example, I do not need to review the "square" of a pawn or the opposition in my endgames. However, specific king and pawn endgames with king path nuances I still review on a regular basis.

If you want to learn more about memory and space repetition learning, I encourage you to read some very interesting articles on the Supermemo website


If you apply the principles that you learned in these last couple articles, I think you'll be very pleased with the results. These are principles that I've learned studying how we learn and remember things as well as from experience both in chess and other endeavors, including martial arts and other sports. They've served me well and I hope they will help you improve and enjoy chess more effectively and efficiently.

Your Turn

I hope you enjoyed the article. If you found it helpful, please share it with others.

Which of these principles do you plan on applying to your training first?

Which of these principles do you already apply to your training?

Do you want to learn more about any of these principles?

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