Wednesday, November 30, 2011

More Chess and Brain Stuff, Plus BLITZ HERESY!

Regular reader(s) will have noticed that I'm interested in relating discoveries about the brain and consciousness to chess. For the latest, see Chess Stories in Our Heads and Brain Folds and Memory.

An excerpt from a book by neuroscientist David Eagleman, Your Brain Knows a Lot More Than You Realize is also relevant to this interest of mine (if you're intrigued, the book is Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain). Eagleman makes an argument  many of us have heard of, but we could use reminding:

The concept of implicit memory has a rich, if little-known, tradition. By the early 1600s, René Descartes had already begun to suspect that although experience with the world is stored in memory, not all memory is accessible. The concept was rekindled in the late 1800s by the psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who wrote that “most of these experiences remain concealed from consciousness and yet produce an effect which is significant and which authenticates their previous existence.”

As almost everyone concedes, stronger players have more "skill" at chess than others, but they also have a lot more "intuition" (whatever, exactly, that means). They know when a move "looks right" most of the time. They are said to have 10,000 patterns in "memory" but this is the implicit memory referred to above. they can't sit down and tell you exactly what these 10,000 patterns are. I read somewhere that Najdorf, a world-class player, said that most of the moves he actually played were the first ones that his unconscious, his intuition, served up to his consciousness. It's interesting to note that Najdorf was known as a great blitz player and one of the greatest blindfold players of all time.

And now for some mild heresy...I think that blitz chess could be a very efficient way to develop your unconscious chess memory and improve results at all time controls, if done with conscious intent. That is, after each blitz game, take a few minutes to review any blunders (and sometimes, marvel at how nicely you played even though you took only a few seconds to move!). I use the engine that's available on FICS and often I learn something useful by spending about five minutes reviewing a game that took about five minutes to play. Look hard at the position and burn the RIGHT move into your memory and then...forget about it.

The opening moves are another area where blitz can give you a lot of useful experience and a storehouse of unconscious knowledge. I suggest that you stick to your main lines for as long as you know them and then briefly see where the players deviated from the moves in your favorite openings book. Again, just a couple of minutes will suffice to make an impression.

Blue Devil Knight wrote about this in relation to tactics exercises back in 2008:

I'm not convinced simply "memorizing" 1000 positions is all that bad. It all depends on how our brain treats those memories once they are implanted. The brain may (with no conscious effort on our part) integrate these different memories into more general categories, form cross-links among categories, striving to build an ever-more coherent picture of the chess world, even while we sleep our brain probably does this. If this speculation is right, the individual problems are like nodes in our brain that are initially implanted, but connections are formed among these nodes so ultimately it becomes a more general and useful integrated tactical skill set.

I am currently reading Roger Penrose's book The Emporor's New Mind and I expect to relate some insights from this fascinating volume to chess as well. Meanwhile, for my next posts I will do something I've never done before, share a few blitz games where something wild, entertaining and hopefully useful happened. I think my approach to blitz has some merit, and I would like to know what you think.
(NOTE: Dec. 1 is the last day to submit to BDK's Chess Carnival. Go here to submit.)


Tommyg said...

hey Robert!

I think blitz can be both harmful and helpful. As you say it depends on how one makes use of it.

I have found it almost always harmful partly because I hate it. So I have sworn off it because I don't like blitz when I win or lose.

It does not fulfill the aesthetic needs I have in chess.

(that sounded pompous, I know)

It is not meant to be a criticism of blitz. It IS just that I never got into chess for a quick adrenaline rush. I got into for the slow and measured beauty of the game to take me away from my work. As it is my that IS more fun when I win..:)

It is still my hobby.

Others may have entered the hobby FOR an adrenaline rush escape from work etc. etc. And for them blitz will be fun and probably helpful to their overall game.

So my conclusion is that it isn't only in how one uses blitz that determines its usefulness: It is also whether one likes it in the first place. (different strokes etc. etc.!)

Robert Pearson said...

Tommy, you're quite right, one must enjoy blitz for my improvement prescription to work! To be effective at it you'vve got to make a lot of the moves without "thinking," based just on intuition, and that doesn't appeal much to some players, even grandmasters. I read that Botvinnik wasn't fond of it.

Intermezzo said...

I agree completely with your article Robert. I play blitz occasionally. Over the board I play it socially and completely for recreation. Online I like to use it to embed a new element of my opening repertoire and keep my tactical awareness sharp (especially in the close season).

Tommy G's remarks are also interesting though. Not everyone enjoysblitz and I find the new trend for bullet and superfast time limits online to be anathema to me. I got into over the board play years before I ever played online but it is interesting that the digital revolution has introduced lots of new players to the game and many of these have never played OTB and some only play blitz or bullet. That is a view point I just don't get. For me OTB is the attraction of the game. I like to read my opponent physically, ven at blitz!