Friday, February 3, 2017

Principles of Effective Chess Training (Part 1)

Derivative of Photo by Simon Matzinger, CC0 1.0
Part of my philosophy for Better Chess Training is that although there are many ways to get better at chess, there are ways to improve the way you improve. So in this article I want to discuss a few principles of an effective training program and then discuss how we can apply them to our training.

In 2014, I wrote an article about four dimensions of learning. The principles we will discuss today don't replace these, but perhaps look at training and learning from a different point of view.

Principles of Training

Whether you choose to study with books, coaches, software, or videos, there are a few aspects that help you get the most out of your study and training.
  • First, the training should be appropriate both for your current skill level and your current needs.
  • Second, there should be clear objectives for each training or study session.
  • Third, there should be a feedback loop to let you know whether or not you accomplished the objectives as well as guide you when you have not.
  • Finally, it is helpful to have a method to systematically review what you have learned so that you don't forget it!
Let's go into a little more detail about each of these and see how my tactics program applies the principles.

This article (Part 1) will cover the first two principles, and I'll cover the next two principles next week!


If is fairly clear that our training needs to be at the appropriate level. There are two aspects of this. First, the difficulty of the material or training exercise needs to be challenging but not overwhelming. Second, the material should be relevant to your needs.

To illustrate this, let's look at a few of my tactics stats on Chess Tempo
  • Standard Rating (as of 2/1/2017): 1963
  • Percentage of Problems Solved Correctly: 66.96% (72% for the last 50 problems)
  • Average Problem Rating (last 50 problems): 1805.3 (I calculated this statistic myself)
  • Highest Problem Rating (last 50): 2051
  • Lowest Problem Rating (last 50): 1619
What does this mean? It means that for the average difficulty of the problems I receive when doing the rated Standard Problems on Chess Tempo, I get about two thirds of them correct and one-third wrong. This seems about right for training tactics. If I got half of the problems I attempted wrong, it would be very discouraging. If I got over 90% of them correct it probably wouldn't stimulate my ability to improve (as they problems would be too easy).

The neat thing about Chess Tempo is that it regulates this for me automatically. I'm not quite sure how, but I have noticed as my rating has gone up over the years, the problems have gotten more difficult.

The second part of appropriateness is that the material should be relevant to one's needs. For tactics, this is fairly easy in that you should focus on practicing tactics that are from actual games as opposed to composed studies that do not resemble positions you might encounter in your games.

Here are some other ways to ensure appropriateness in your chess training:
  • Emphasize studying master games that have openings within your opening repertoire.
  • Play opponents who are on average slightly better than you (with a small percentage being weaker players or much stronger than you).
  • Study chess books that are appropriate for your level of understanding. For example, a book like Grandmaster Preparation: Calculation is appropriate for players with ratings above say USCF 2000 while beginners might be better served by studying Chess Tactics for Students
Sometimes it's fun to try something incredible difficult to get a sense of what lies ahead. It is also beneficial to occasionally do really easy stuff too for a mental break. However, challenging but not overwhelming is what you want to aim for with a bulk of your study and training.

Clear Objectives

Before you begin a study or training session, it is important to identify what you are trying to learn or train during that session. One reason for this is that the brain is very good at finding something when you are clear what you are trying to find, while it has great difficulty when the objectives are unclear - or there are too many. 

Myelin insulates nerves and speeds up
electrical signals in the brain.

Desmazieres, et al. Journal of Neuroscience, 2014.
To use the model proposed by scientists about the brain development - I first learned about it in Geoffrey Colvin's Talent is Overrated, our brains form a substance called myelin around nerve fibers, which increases the speed at which impulses are conducted by insulating those nerve fibers. (For more information, I found this easy-to-understand overview of the how myelin works)

My (very simple) understanding behind this process is that the more specific nerves fire, the more this myelin is produced to insulate the nerve fibers. From this point of view, having clear objectives (and designing your training around this) will help you isolate the key nerve fibers onto which to build myelin. 

It's the difference between someone who goes out for a jog to break a sweat and an athlete with no objective and a professional runner going for a training run. The professional has specific objectives for that run, which may include pace, technical form, distance, and breathing technique coordinated with a long-term plan that juggles many objectives. The professional (perhaps with the assistance of a coach) - who may be training for say a marathon several months - doesn't just go out and run. He has specific objectives for each run that fit into a bigger puzzle to gradually reach his peak on the right day.

How can you apply this to your training? Here are a few ideas that I have used:

  • When you are playing a training game (or a tournament game), identify one or more objectives you want to accomplish in your performance. This could include trying to stay more focused by not leaving your seat as often, trying to identify a plan for each move you make, or trying to stay relaxed through your games.
  • Try to isolate aspects of your through process when you analyze your games and practice them in analysis positions. You can check out my article on thinking in chess for more on the thought process.
  • When studying a chess book, try to focus on a theme or aspect of the games and positions you study. For example, you are studying an annotated book of master games, you can you focus on how the masters handle their minor pieces, or how they treat certain pawn centers. 
  • I write down my objectives on index cards and keep it in front of me when playing online or doing tactics on Chessity or Chess Tempo.
This type of clarity in your training will help both your understanding an retention. Instead of a "shotgun" approach where you do a bunch of stuff and hope it sticks, you can be a sniper and seek out the knowledge or skills that will take you to the next level. 

This is where a qualified coach might be helpful, in pointing out weaknesses and pointing you towards proper training material. Of course, the hard work must be done on your own.

Your Turn

What is your current level and what books or activities do you find appropriate for your level?

Have you ever done any training that was way too hard for you? Too easy?

What types of objectives are you going to use in your upcoming training?

Check out Part 2, where we'll discuss Feedback Loops and Systematic Review.


  1. Very nice article, it is easy to agree upon. What I found that chess is discipline, and it requires you to be disciplined in what ever you do.