Friday, May 25, 2007

Weaving the Disparate Threads

A lot of thoughts have been rattling around since my last post, and it's time I let them out before they form a union and file a lawsuit.

A majority of the chess blogs out there right now are, most of the time, about chess improvement, though there are outstanding exceptions like Boylston Chess Club, The Kenilworthian and The Chess Mind. Despite a great deal of experimentation and practical testing there is still no universal agreement on what are the best methods, techniques and exercises to actually improve tournament or rated-game results, which is a separate task from improving one's knowledge and understanding of the game.

After over 25 years (with, admittedly, some significant gaps) of serious USCF-rated tournament chess I'm only just beginning to realize how significant the difference between the two can be. Mental toughness, physical conditioning, relaxation techniques, psychological and competitive methods--all of these can add hundreds of points to your rating if they're top-notch, or they can keep you far below your natural level, based on your chess knowledge, if they are slipshod and inconsistent. But those will be the subject for another post. Right now I want to focus on training, the question of what study materials, programs and techniques are the best for the task of raising your rating, all other considerations aside.

As many readers will already know there is a school of thought, based on the writings of Michael de la Maza and represented by the bloggers known as the Knights Errant, that believes that intense tactical training is the major (or only) useful method of chess improvement, at least below the expert/master level. And they have a powerful real-life example of results in de la Maza himself and his big rating improvement in a short time period.

And yet, as I've written here previously, Rolf Wetzell in his book Chess Any Age has a completely different approach based on correcting one's specific personal weaknesses and mistakes, as shown in one's own games, and then making up "flash cards" or an electronic equivalent and reviewing these until that category of typical error is much reduced or eliminated. He also strongly emphasizes the avoidance of time-pressure, even at the cost of occasional quick and possibly superficial moves. There's not much at all in Wetzell's book about systematic tactical drills, yet after he developed his methods, and at a fairly advanced age, he was able to increase his rating by about 400 points within a couple of years, reaching the 2200 master level.

Now, as someone whose rating is creeping ahead from a floor of 1600 by a few points per tournament I might not have the gravitas of the two above-referenced gentlemen with their large rating gains, but I do feel that I'm on the right track when I say that everyone is different and I believe that you have to find your own methods, what works for you as the unique individual you are. And I personally believe in balance as the way to make long-term progress; de la Maza and some others have a near-contempt for studying openings, positional elements and endings, saying something like "if you blunder tactically, none of these things matter." But they do matter--let me put it to you as a series of "ifs" based" on a lot of years of experience:

If you are on your own from move one in the opening, you will expend a lot of time and energy that you may need later, just to avoid getting into a difficult position right out of the gate.

If you don't have knowledge of positional elements like weak pawns and squares you won't put yourself into position to use your tactical skills very often, because your opponent who does will have the better game and be the one putting the pressure on.

If you don't calculate very well you will be unable to take advantage of favorable opportunities given by the opponent, and you will blunder away games where you stand well (and in my experience nothing is more painful in chess that kind of error).

If you don't know anything about basic endgames you will miss opportunities to transition to winning positions, and you'll spend lots of time and energy trying to calculate everything (which you may not have after hours of play when the ending is finally in front of you).

So my approach has evolved since I returned 18 months ago to playing tournament chess and the accompanying increase in study time; for me, what's working (slowly but surely) is a "Golden Mean" of chess study and appreciation; spreading my limited study time between books on a few good, solid and well-tested openings, tactical position practice on Chess Tactics Server and in books, review of the very basic endings like King and Pawn, Rook and Pawn and Queen v. Pawn, and occasionally spending an hour on a great Grandmaster battle in one of my openings with lots of explanations in words of the aims of both sides and the positional elements, as well as variations.

So that's me--boring balance suits me fine, and we'll see if I can continue my climb up the ladder with this mix. As I say, the non-chess aspects of competition, which may have just as much to do with winning and losing as the purely chess considerations, will be addressed separately.

For your edification, here are some excerpts of the thoughts of other bloggers about study methods aimed at winning chess games; follow the link after the (:) for the full post:

Temposchlucker: If you study your own games, the errors and suboptimal moves will for 100% be related with the flaws in your chessmodule.

If you use a standard problemset like CT-art, it will only be effective if a presented problem is a lookalike from a situation you would do wrong when you encounter it in a game AND there is a chance that you will encounter it. It is not unlikely that that is the case for only 50% of the problems (figure is arbitrary). If so, 50% of your efforts are wasted beforehand and will not lead to better play but only to better solving CT-art.

When you study grandmaster games, you try to invent a move yourself before you look at the move that was actually played in the game. In that case mistakes originate for 100% in the chessmodule in your brain. On the other hand the positions you will find yourself in can bear very little resemblance with what you probably encounter in your own games.
Conclusion: study your own games. Second best: study mastergames. (See his whole recent series for more great insights).

Blue Devil Knight
: After sifting through everybody's criticisms of the the official MDLM Seven Circles, I have come up with the following chess training plan, which I call the Divine Tragedy:

David (transformation): Just read this whole thing--snippets wouldn't do it justice. Well, how 'bout this: From 2002 to 2005, as I have said now and again, I spent three years slowly going through 941 Grandmaster games, which I had very copiously rendered or copied into pgn format. These were not annotated, and my goal in the first pass was to try to apprehend the entire board, understand possible plans, and sense tactical threats, and thereby attempt to guess the next best move, that is to say, sit on the games. This amounted to roughly one game a day, but since I tended to cluster the work, it was more like two per day at most with apt pauses along the way. Even when I was tired from work, I always tried to do even ten or twelve moves, etc, rather than none, and so feel the vital pulse of Lasker, Tal, Pillsbury, and other pedigree.

Michael Goeller (The Kenilworthian)
: Most chess writers suggest that you need both knowledge and experience to improve. But the two are not equally important to practical results, and the truth is that most of the time you spend collecting knowledge is wasted if you cannot put it into practice over the board.

Of course, I'm not the first to say this. That's what Michael de la Maza's famous Rapid Chess Improvement: A Study Plan for Adult Players (reviewed here at great length in 2005) is all about. And books such as John Nunn's Secrets of Practical Chess and Alex Yermolinsky's The Road to Chess Improvement develop the theme at length. But for those who have not read these books, let me boil it down for you into a ten point plan so that you can decide if you really want to do what it takes to improve.

Enough for now--there are many other interesting thoughts out there from excellent chess bloggers, but finding these I leave as an exercise for the reader.



Rocky said...

Wahrheit, Excellent post! One of the best posts I've read in a long time.

Although studying tactics and doing some form of the circles has significantly helped me, I'm beginnig to see that I greatly lack in other areas ... openings and endgames for example.

I appreciate the tidbit you posted about Wetzell's book. I'm thinking about looking into that book.

Anyway ... great post! Thanks!

Blue Devil Knight said...

Yes, definitely people need to have a balanced approach to get better.

This comes up every six months or so in the blogosphere. In the early days of the knights this claim was actually considered controversial (fueled by MDLMs own ridiculous pronouncements that only tactics matters).

Typical scenario: a good chess player will start blogging and then say "Hey, you knights, tactics is not all there is." Some of the other knights will actually start to disagree, true to their name. And then later those knights will realize the person was right, sometimes even thinking they have discovered a new chess principle and naming after themselves (e.g., J'adouble's law of tactics).

I know I'm getting to be an old blogger when I don't need to write anything new.

I wish my weakness were in my positional play or opening skills. I am first and foremost a tactical patzer. My coach agrees. :) But at least that is good justification for all this circles nonsense.

Blue Devil Knight said...

This comes up enough that it is Knights Errant FAQ #14.

14. This seems like a very narrow approach to chess. Isn't there more to chess than tactics?
This is the most common criticism of the Circles. Jeremy Silman voices it quite stridently in a review of de la Maza's book here. Clearly, chess is more than just tactics. Strategy, opening theory, and the endgame are important aspects of the game. The Circles are a kind of Intensive Care Unit for those of us who are especially challenged in the area of tactics. If you are dropping pieces every game, then studying the subtleties of an arcane opening is probably not the best remedy. However, the Circles are only one of many possible avenues to tactical competence, and we always enjoy a good discussion of alternative methods that we might incorporate into our study.

Sciurus said...

Great summary of the different approaches out there in the chess blogosphere. I am really curious about the second part you announced, hope it will come soon.

transformation said...

i am all ears! excellent post. thank you!

what i find, most of all, at your blog is balance, equanimity, and evenhanded grace, in so well heeding the wide fabric of chess, and surely you will attain you goal, learn a lot about learning, and meet many fine persons along the way, as i do here.

thank you.

warmly, dk
ps i FINALLY redid my resume. hard to encapsulate what it means, but post today relates it back to chess...

Ryan Emmett said...

Great post.

I agree that there should be a sensible balance of play and study. Also play should be balanced between quick and slow games and study between... well, everything!

chessloser said...

i really got to get that rolf wetzell book...
this is a great post...lots to think over. a really great post...

Blue Devil Knight said...

That Wetzell book is not all that great IMO. It doesn't suck as much as it says things which are sort of obvious, and are already in articles by Heisman, Goeller, pretty much every blogger. But it is all in one place in an idiosyncratic, pre computer-age format (flash cards?!), which is cool for historical reasons I guess.

I bought it, all excited, about three weeks ago, and really didn't take anything new from it. His recommended thought process is pretty cool, and is basically the same as my thought process, so it was fun to see a good player with similar ideas (which I had stolen from even better players). However, if thought process is what you want then Soltis' 'How to choose a chess move' or Buckley's 'Practical chess analysis' are both WAY better. I am still waiting for that bloody Tisdall book "Improve your chess now." They contain less speculative psychology, more practical advice.

At any rate, one thing I've learned from all this crap is that reading about chess is worse than doing chess. Up, up, and away!

Wahrheit said...

Thanks much for the comments, everyone. BDK, yes, Wetzell is somewhat idiosyncratic, and I don't believe in swallowing his approach whole, either--he does mention using the computer to create the equivalent of the flash cards, but at the time the book was written he hadn't the software.

I think his approach is good in that it tries to correct each individual's specific weaknesses, as shown by their personal, actual mistakes made; I see Temposchlucker is talking in very similar terms.

As I note in the post, de la Maza proved by real results that he had a point--maybe he took it too far, but he deserves a lot of credit for putting his thoughts out there and stimulating all of us to look at these things, that's for sure!