Sunday, November 22, 2009

ACIS of Caissa: Maybe It's Not What to Study, It's Whether We Need to Study at All?

The ACIS (Adult Chess Improvement Seekers) seems to have really taken off, from its modest beginning in some comments at Chess Confessions, through its modest viral development by Blunder Prone (part II, part III), and a cascade of Seekers.

(Mr. Duval aka Blunder Prone has a list on the top of his sidebar. More are to follow, I'm sure)

A.C.I.S of Caissa (so far)

Now that we have a title, a mission, a movement, so to speak, I would like to present the theoretical underpinnings of ACIS as I understand them, to make it more than just another acronym. I don't speak for anyone else, but look forward to hearing from you, Dear Reader, regarding whether I've captured some thing of value here.

Much of the chess blogging by non-professionals is about improvement. Certainly, there are history blogs, Grandmaster blogs, club blogs, etc., but even these sometimes touch on improvement. Scrolling down the list of blogs I've chosen to link to on the sidebar, the majority of posts on a majority of the sites are about general or personal chess improvement. The original Knights de la Maza were, of course chiefly about improvement using a certain, defined method as defined in de la Maza's articles (Part I, Part II) and book.

Very few of these thousands of chess improvement posts seem to ask the questions:

Why do you need to improve? Why do you want to improve? And how, exactly, is this improvement to be defined?

Let's go back even farther. Let's go back to First Principles. Why the hell do we play chess at all? That's worth an essay in itself, and people have already written it: Concentration, competition, achievement, healthy struggle; given that we do play, why try so hard to improve? I've referred back to my posts about Dr. Kenneth Mark Colby many times and I'll do so again:

Why should a patzer seek to become a grandpatzer? Because of the aristos (Greek: Aristos = best). Life is more than ham sandwiches and beer. Humans strive, not just to survive, but to enhance the quality, the excellence, of survival. Striving for excellence in any endeavor, developing yourself to become your best at what you do, is rewarding and fulfilling to aspirations higher than happiness. Merely happy people, without artistic goals, vegetate in incomplete, hobbled and impoverished lives...A grandpatzer is a strong chessplayer, a threat to anyone (including himself) in a given game.

Very philosophical, no? There is however, another take, another approach that one could find just as legitimate, indeed, more practical:

"Anything worth doing, is worth doing badly."

---G. K. Chesterton

"Right now, I’m 1600-ish, the same as 10 years ago without putting effort into improvement. What would happen if I tried? Does the thought of “maybe there’s an Expert somewhere in here” motivate me enough to work?

More likely, the “I’m sufficiently skilled so most people can’t dismiss me; that’s good enough” win out (again)."

---Donnie, Liquid Egg Product

Let me state it this way: One could just play chess. In the days of yore, the olden days when there was smoking in chess clubs and all kind of dangerous stuff like that, quite a few people became experts or masters just by playing a lot of chess at a club with strong players. Reuben Fine, for example, had the best Americans of the 1920s and '30s New York chess clubs to school him, and played a great deal of blitz as a youngster. I believe he once wrote that he did very little formal study before reaching master level. So just as a base, using your chess time to play chess will bring you to certain level, your natural level of chess skill, so to speak.

After that, it gets murky.

"Improvement" is almost universally defined by us in the ACIS/chess blogging community as an improved rating, whether USCF, FIDE, ICC or other. Whether a higher rating is all we really should be striving for in our chess career is something well worth exploring, but I want to save that for another post. Let's accept that as given, for now. The big question (drum roll, please...)

Is studying chess really the best way to raise your rating???

I'm going to give you a few questions to ponder. Have you ever been kibbitzing a game and seen good moves that the players (sometimes much higher-rated than you) missed? Have you ever played a move in a (non-blitz) game and instantly seen, as soon as you took your hand off the piece, that it was a blunder? Have you ever seen a Grandmaster blunder? (if not, see my "Homer Nods" series). I'll wager a bundle you answered "Yes, yes and yes."

Have you ever asked yourself how these things are possible?

If you are a person who has played a reasonable amount of serious chess, "lost at least 500 games" as Capablanca is said to have formulated it, you already know enough about tactics to avoid major blunders, and to take tactical advantage of your opponents' mistakes. You already know that "Loose pieces drop off" and the pattern of a knight fork and a back-rank mate.

So, why do you, (and me too!) still make these kinds of mistakes, mistakes that are usually the main reason that our rating is static? Why can't we call up this knowledge on (almost) every move and avoid blunders and climb the ladder to the rating we so richly deserve? Why do tactical exercises, even thousands of them, sometimes help, but often in a very limited way--that is, why have some people done 10,000 or more of them and not become masters?

Questions, questions...these are questions for human performance psychology, rather than arguments about whether MDLM is the best study method. And like a good old-fashioned movie serial, for now I'll leave you hanging. In the next installment, we'll survey the field and see what we can glean that will help us ACISers out.

Until then, let us ROCK


BlunderProne said...

I like Cake.

I'll digest this for now and return with some proper response later.

CMoB said...

"So, why do you, (and me too!) still make these kinds of mistakes, mistakes that are usually the main reason that our rating is static? Why can't we call up this knowledge on (almost) every move and avoid blunders and climb the ladder to the rating we so richly deserve? Why do tactical exercises, even thousands of them, sometimes help, but often in a very limited way--that is, why have some people done 10,000 or more of them and not become masters?" Maybe because you haven't improved enough. Tactical excersises alone will not prevent you from dropping a piece every now and then. And if you actually believe that doing 10,000 of them will make you a master, you're crazy. Unless you have a natural talent for the game perhaps. There is so much more to chess then just tactical excersises. But i believe it was unnecessary to tell you that.

BlunderProne said...

Where to begin?

What game has lasted longer than rubik’s cube, monopoly, video games and Frisbees? Chess has stood the test of time. Is it a game, sport or art? I say it’s all the above. Where else do you place a finite number of squares along with a finite number of pieces and end up with an infinite number of possibilities. ( Well, mathematically speaking,there is a finite number of possibilities but it’s so astronomic that its virtually infinite. ) Add to all this it’s rich history and you can get an idea what appeals to the chess enthusiast inside of me.

What possesses me to get better? Why am I not good enough or why can’t I just accept my current ability? First, I’m a tenacious rebel who believes that old dogs can still learn new tricks. I over heard a young master talking to a group of young pups about anyone over 30 is lost and can never improve more than 100 points. At that time I was in the mid 1300’s. I finished my lunch and said to myself, “ Someday, as God is my witness, I will show that fool a thing or two.” My rating climbed to the 1700’s ( though recently with life stuff it dropped back to the 1600’s). So I guess you can say it was a personal dare that motivated me. I’ve also always been the one to set goals for myself.

More fundamentally, I like the process of studying. I like learning new things. I like stimulating my mind and exercising my memory. For personal reasons, I find chess is good remedy for damage I caused myself back when I was the age of the young master mentioned above.

Old dogs can learn new tricks. We’re wiser and have a little more control over our tongues.

Loomis said...

"Many [people] are obsessed with hobbies that have little or no objective measurement of success. People who assemble train sets and visit train museums and buy countless train books aren't worried about being good at it. They like it and that's enough, and it's also enough for chess." --

I think you hit on some important observations that I've never seen articulated before. I have come to realize over the last couple of years the significant importance of playing regularly in tournament games to improvement. After reading your post, I am making the connection that this is the only real way to practice things like consistent focus and hard work at the board. So many of our mistakes are like what you describe, blunders that we know are wrong the instant we see them, but we've let our hand off the piece already. Even if you can solve 10,000 difficult tactics problems, one unfocused moment at the board can make you fall for the simplest fork, skewer, etc.

DeepGreene said...

This is a great post; really got me thinking in fresh ways about something I think a lot about already...

So I thought about it some more - with specific reference to the question of 'why train to be a better hobbyist?' and what I keep coming back to has very little to do with performance yardsticks or anything easily measured (or rated).

For me, the issue is that I'm just good enough at this game to be sensitive to my blind-spots, the aspects of the game where I'm still more or less illiterate. By way of example, I have issues with planning and I get flummoxed in certain endgames.

Should my training be fruitful, I will simply know when I've gotten myself to a level of competence I can live with in those areas - but I'm not there yet. That level of competence won't make me an IM, but it will cure me of chronic aimless moves. I just want to lose because my ideas were inferior; not because I had none.

Yes, this process should have a positive effect on my measurable performance - but for me I'm training first and foremost to enhance my own enjoyment of the game.

Howard Goldowsky said...

Excellent post. For years, I've treated chess training similar to martial arts training, and martial arts training tries to improve not just one's physical abilities, but also one's mental and emotional condition. Without going into detail, the same general ideas apply to chess training. There is no way I'm going to become a master without the mental, and, even physical, discipline required to train at a high level. For example, I must disciple myself to sleep well, go to the gym for stamina, etc. Like martial arts training, chess training is a way to develop my whole character. The same could be said for someone wanting to become great at any competitive endeavor.


Liquid Egg Product said...

Loomis' comment rang so true for me personally. Tournament play is so important, and my rating is a plateau probably because I only play serious chess once or twice a year.

But other people have different situations. Each person has their own "optimum" improvement program. Without leaning on others' experience and ideas, trying to find the "key" is trying to find a pencil in the dark.

And how did you remember my quote? I barely remembered it!

From the patzer said...

Talked about it with an International Master and his answer was simple. You have to play alott of chess games so you get to know and can cure your weaknessess.

With other words, he said a ratio of 80 percent of playing the game (official games not friendly ones) and 20 percent study to filter out your weaknessess which you cannot make go away by just playing alone.

Phaedrus said...

Dear Robert, I have tried to answer your (maybe rhetorical) question in todays post on my blog. Thank you for bringing this up and keep up the good work.

James Stripes said...

...using your chess time to play chess will bring you to certain level, your natural level of chess skill, so to speak.

One's "natural level" may differ between, say, New York City and Juneau, Seattle and Spokane.

Of course, these days everyone has the internet, so the natural level leans towards the universal. Even so, this natural level for most people must be somewhat below the level proposed by the Levitt Equation: (IQ x 10) + 1000. Most folks with advanced degrees should be chess masters, according to Levitt.

I still believe that my training and playing regimen, if I put it in operation in New York, would produce a rating at least 100 points higher than my current peak. Likewise, when Spokane kids graduate and move to Seattle, their rating shoots up. I could name several.

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