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Friday, February 24, 2017

Are You Studying Too Much Chess?

The Case of a Young Chess Blogger


Photographer: AJ Montpetit. CC0 1.0
Several years ago, I remember reading a chess blog of a young man who was excited about an opportunity to study chess for 7-8 hours a day. At the time, I thought that was neat (although lamenting that I did not have that kind of time with a family and work).

However, as I progress steadily in my own chess journey, I realize that perhaps the extra time to train may not have been a blessing after all.

The young man eventually got a job and nearly altogether quit chess, with little improvement to show from his summer of full time chess study.

This article is not about judging or criticizing those of you who have a lot of time to study chess. Instead, I want to discuss the benefits of setting upper bounds or limits to your chess study and play.

Some of the concepts I discuss in this article were inspired by an article by James Clear called Do Things You Can Sustain. Mr. Clear approaches the concept from the viewpoint of sustainability of growth, which I agree with, and I'll be also adding a few other benefits.

Sustainability


The main point that James Clear makes in his article is that there is a sweet spot for practice and improvement. Too little effort and time and you're basically being lazy - e.g. assuming you're not just too busy to study chess. Too much effort and you'll burn out. 

I actually set limits to my play and study partly for these reasons. Part of it is a practical matter of fitting it in with a family of three young children and work. Part of it is a strategic decision.

I try to play competitively over-the-board (OTB) about once a month or so. This frequency allows me time to analyze my games on my own as well as with my coach. Also, it helps me maintain and foster my relationships with my wife and children, as I use the other weekends to spend with them. 

Playing more often would probably make this a little tougher. If I played less frequently, I think I would come into each tournament somewhat rusty as playing online and studying isn't quite the same.

Prioritization


When you set limits to your studying and playing, it also forces you to pick and choose the most important activities. When I was in college and first started playing competitive chess. I studied chess books, my Chess Life magazine, as well as playing hours and hours of blitz chess on the Internet Chess Club. Although I improved, I think a lot of this was due to the fact that I was a beginner.

However, as I got a job, got married, and had children, I realized that I couldn't spend 4+ hours a day on chess. I had to prioritize my study and training time. I started to emphasize analyzing my losses as well as reducing my blitz play. Surprisingly, my improvement accelerated!

I think this is partly because I focused in on the areas that were most important for improving my play at the time. Of course, I needed to work on all parts of my game, but the most relevant materials within those areas yielded good dividends.

For example, instead of studying random master games - which was still helpful - I started to focus on games within my opening repertoire when possible. This helped me to learn patterns and variations that I would be more likely to see in my own play. Also, when I encountered these patterns in my own play, I was able to integrate my personal experience with what I was learning, which compounded the learning effect.

Attention


One of the other benefits of setting limits is attention. Your capability to attend to tasks - especially mental energy consuming tasks such as chess study - is limited. Have you ever played a long four or five hour chess match and then felt that your brain was fried? If not, then perhaps you weren't thinking hard enough (or your endurance is just greater than mine).

When we are studying chess for a long time at a stretch, or like our friend in the beginning of the article, for many hours in a day, we get tired. When our minds fatigue, we start to ignore or miss small details. This effects both our performance and our ability to retain knowledge.

A few months ago, my tactics routine consisted of doing three rounds of tactics on Chessity. This usually averaged out to around 30 tactical problems. Because I measure my progress, I noticed that I was plateauing and that often the performance on the 2nd and 3rd rounds was not as good as the first.

I decided to try something. I started to only do one round of tactics on Chessity - so usually 9-12 problems. This did a couple things. First, I didn't tire as I did my tactics training. Second, it increased my focus and attention, because I knew I would only get one shot. I realized as I looked back at my journal entries that I was getting too casual in my training. Instead of calculating variations, I was guessing just based on initial impressions - and I was getting enough of them correct to reinforce this habit.

Similarly, I eliminated nearly all of my blitz play. Part of this is my desire to create beautiful chess and thus wanting to focus on longer time control games. Also, although I believe blitz has a place in chess training, I felt since my time comes at a premium with my family and work, I needed to place my chess time elsewhere.

Because of this shift, I am much more attentive when I play both online and in over-the-board tournament games. When I played blitz, I often "binged" - if I lost, I would play again until I won a few in a row. I would spend an hour or two and get 5-10 games in. However, the quality of those games and their instructive value were fairly low. Now, playing only two or three longer time control games per week, I have a different level of focus and effort.

Although I generally have an abundance mentality about life, this is a case where having a scarcity mentality creates both urgency and effort in a positive way!

Applications


Here are a few suggestions on how you might apply what I'm talking about to help optimize your chess training.
  • Measure your effort levels and focus during your chess training. Use a journal or spreadsheet.
  • Measure how much time you train and play each day. Compare this with your effort levels and focus - if you find a drop-off after a certain amount of time, you could be burning out or overtraining.
  • Consider setting an upper bound to how much time or how many activities you will do each day. For example, set a two hour cap on your study time or a 10 problem cap on your tactical training.
  • Observe differences in your mood, energy, and level of effort after you have made changes.
  • Experiment with different aspects of your training - e.g. playing, studying, training drills, etc.
  • Consider the time and effort you spend on non-chess activities that can effect your chess performance such as sleep and nutrition. Redirecting some time and effort towards those may be a beneficial change.

Conclusion


When it comes to training at chess, it's not only the amount of time that we put into it. It's also the activities we choose to engage in as well as the level of engagement, attention, and effort we exert during that time that effect how much we can improve. 

The right strategy I think is an individual choice, based on factors such as your other responsibilities, your mental endurance (which can be trained to some extent), as well as your ambitions and goals in chess. Like chess, the pieces on your own personal "board" looks different than the next person's, and thus different plans and moves have to be considered.

Your Turn


Did you enjoy this article?

Are you going to try some of the ideas I mention? 

If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on Twitter or Facebook. 

Also, follow me on Twitter, where I share all of my chess writing and activity as well as try to spread positive messages in general.

Good luck and as always, Better Chess!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Four Beginner Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."
-Shunryu Suzuki 

I was playing in a tournament recently and was watching some of the games in the U1000 section. Most of the players had just started playing that year and it was good to see their enthusiasm and competitive spirit. It was also a special tournament for me because my own children started their chess journey and played in the unrated section for their first tournament.

As I watched their games, I began to notice a few common types of mistakes the players were making in their games. I've been there too. In this article, we'll discuss a few of the prominent ones I noticed and how to avoid them.

Ignoring Your Opponent's Moves

The tell-tale sign of this was seeing the player's hand make a move and press the clock and then hover over the next piece he plans on moving (often the same one he just moved). All of this without even looking at his opponent's side of the board. 

Remember in chess that it takes two to tango. Chess is a very interesting art because not only do you use your own creative powers along with your logic and reasoning, your opponent does as well. In fact, his creative and reasoning ability is focused on plans and intentions diametrically opposed to yours! We just can't ignore what he's doing or capable of doing.

Here is one of the positions I saw.


This is an extreme example but it is not an uncommon one for beginners to make.

Our next example comes from a more conventional middlegame position. In this case, Black sees the simple threat of an under-defended piece and makes a move to resolve the situation. However, she ignores (or doesn't see) the potential tactical shot.



Often times, when beginners make these mistakes they often kick themselves, because it is not necessarily a concept that they don't understand, but usually a move they did not see.

In the example above, if Black was given the position in from White's point of view and told that it was White to "Move and Win" she would have seen the fork in less than 10 seconds. However, because Black isn't in the habit of considering her opponent's responses, it wasn't a part of her decision making process.

How can we fix this mistake? First, I think a lot of experience will help naturally as players will start to come up with ways to avoid simple mistakes lest they continue to lose because of them.. I think we can accelerate the process though by being aware of it and taking action. Here are a few ideas:

  • Follow Blumenfeld's Rule: Before you make your next move, as yourself, "Am I allowing mate in one? Am I allowing my queen to get taken? Am I allowing my rook to get taken?" and so on. Although this may seem like it takes a lot of time, it will become automatic and it will save a lot of heartache as you avoid dropping those queens!
  • When studying master games or going through your own games, identify the attack and defense relationships between the pieces. For example, when you move a piece, identify what pieces are attacked by it or defended by it. This will help you develop your awareness.
  • Practice checkmate problems. Although I primarily use Chess Tempo and Chessity for tactics training, I really like Ideachess for its ability to select checkmate problems from two-movers to four-movers. Start with two-movers and move on to mates-in-three. Doing these will develop your board vision as you will need to know how each piece works to checkmate or defend the opposing king.

Lone Wolf Pieces

The second thing I noticed was that the players were often sending in one (maybe two) pieces to attack a target.

Sometimes this might be in the opening when a player gets his knight or queen out, and then tries to probe for weaknesses that just don't appear. Or they see a piece that's en prise so they attack it, only for it to be defended on the next move.

Here are a few tips to cure this particular issue:

  • Remember to develop your pieces in the opening before starting an attack. I discuss this topic more fully in my article on learning opening moves.
  • When you decide to attack a target, think about your opponent's response and how you will follow-up to the initial defense. See if you can build up an attack on a single target.
  • Make sure that all of your pieces are participating in the game. When you're not sure what to do, ask yourself, "Which of my pieces are not doing anything yet?" Find something for it to do.
  • Study the games of the great masters for examples of how players coordinate their pieces. See the Morphy game I have included below.
Here is an example of planning ahead and building up pressure on a simple target using the example of an isolated pawn.

One of the great Paul Morphy's skills was using all of his pieces to conduct an attack. Here he demonstrates this ability in fine fashion against Spanish-Cuban master Celso Golmayo. You can also check out my video on this game.


There are times when one must "go it alone." However, your chess pieces in general shouldn't!

Lacking Basic Endgame Knowledge

There are many reasons why studying the endgame is very useful for beginners.
  • Endgame positions involved fewer pieces and thus are simpler to learn.
  • Endgame knowledge transfers to other parts of the game.
  • Since many beginners (and intermediate players) neglect the endgame, your knowledge of the endgame will give you a competitive advantage.
Here was the ending of a game that was painful for everyone to watch. Both players were rated around 600.


In the beginning, you don't need to know that many concepts and specific endgames. However, the following are useful and very common at all levels:

  • Queen and King versus King (shown above)
  • Rook and King versus King
  • Two Rooks and King versus King
  • King and Pawn versus King
  • Understanding the concept of the opposition
  • Understanding the "square" of the pawn.
You can study these in Jeremy Silman's very useful Silman's Complete Endgame Course. For overall chess training, including a comprehensive endgame course, I also recommend GM Nigel Davies' Tiger Chess program.

Missing Opportunities

The final beginner mistake I will discuss today is missing opportunities. Specifically, in this tournament I saw a lot of missed mates-in-one and hanging pieces. In a way, this is the opposite of the first mistake. Instead of ignoring your opponent's threats, you are ignoring your own opportunities. 

Here is a game I saw between two beginners in their first tournament.


There may be many reasons for this. For example, one side may overvalue the threats of their opponent (like we saw above). However, I think a lot of this is general board awareness and being careful. The solutions are similar to what I mentioned above:

  • Follow Blumenfeld's Rule for offense: "Can I checkmate my opponent? Can I take his queen? Can I take his rook?"
  • Before making a move, ask yourself, "Can I find a better move?"
  • Study basic tactics problems on Chessity or from a book like Chess Tactics for Students by John Bain.
  • Study checkmate problems on Ideachess or from a book like the massive Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations, and Games by Laszlo Polgar (father of the famous Polgar sisters).

Enjoying the Journey

I hope this article provided some useful advice. I think the first step to improvement is awareness that you need to improve. The second step is to take action towards that improvement. I hope you find the tips and suggestions I provided helpful for you.

It was a joy to watch my children play in their first tournament, and I remember the pain I felt when I lost because of a "silly" mistake. With continued study and experience, you'll avoid these common mistakes. Until then, keep playing and enjoying this beautiful game of ours.

Your Turn

Did you enjoy this article?

If you are a beginner, what is your biggest struggle at the moment? Put it in the comments and I'll see if I can create more articles or videos to help you get through them.



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

Conclusion

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?

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!

Appropriateness

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.