Today I had an interesting question come up in my mind after browsing various chess improvement blogs. Basically, the question is "Should chess training be more like preparing for a test, or more like practicing a musical instrument?" I will say I don't think this is an original question in my mind. I was browsing Soltis' "Studying Chess Made Easy" and he has a chapter claiming studying chess isn't like studying an academic subject. It was also mentioned to some extent in some of the blogs I was looking at.
For instance, there seems to be two schools of thought about solving problems. One school holds that you should look at the problem and solve it, however long it takes and only look at the answer when you are sure you are right, some even argue you should never look at a solution. The other school holds that you should only spend a fairly minimal amount of time trying to solve it and then look at the answer (I was browsing Dan Heisman's pages today and he seems to favor this approach). The first school of thought emphasizes the importance of working things out for yourself as a way of learning. Part of the idea seems to be that you are training similar skills as you will need to use in a game, the skills required to confront specific problems and think through to a solution. The second school of thought emphasizes the notion of pattern recognition. Going back to the duality I started with, it seems that the first school is more the skill training or 'like a musical instrument' approach, whereas the second approach is more like the knowledge approach.
I think both of these approaches make sense. For the most part when I solve, I try to work until I feel I have solved the problem. I'm not a purist, and if I have worked for a while and just don't see what I could be missing, I will look at the solution. I have a belief that doing that work makes you better at solving problems and that practice will pay off when you are analyzing specific situations in games.
On the other hand, building up a base of knowledge also seems crucial. It seems to me very true that this is a major component of being able to cope with specific real situations is to break them down into component pieces that you are familiar with.
The point I want to get at is that really problems can be used to train both of these aspects of chess thinking. I do believe in the skill sort of idea. Problems are to train the ability to work through situations that you are confronted with. But at the same time, building up a store house of knowledge of patterns is a crucial way of improving that process.
I think the same can be said in a more general sense. With a question such as "Which is more important for improvement, playing games or studying?" Building your knowledge base is important, but so is the process of thinking through the specific issues that come up as they come up.
I am a believer in the importance of reviewing my games, but on the other hand I almost never do it. That's one goal I have, to be better about doing that. Again, it gets back to the idea of learning the process of thinking through the specific chess situations. On the other hand, without the knowledge provided by study, this process could be a fairly meaningless meandering through random variations.
I saw a lot of people talking about 'getting rusty' on the blogs I was browsing today. I think it's natural. It seems to me this lends credence to the idea of it as akin to practicing an instrument. A skill that degenerates without practice. It's the practice of the thought process that is lacking when someone is away, it's the practice of calling up the relevant information, principle, or pattern. Of course, I'm sure there is a simple amount of forgetting, but often the bloggers who discuss this problem speak of their mistakes not as mysterious but as ones that seem evident to them with just a bit of hindsight. The knowledge was there, just not effectively employed.
I guess the way it seems to me, the increase in knowledge is crucial to improvement, but so is the ability to integrate knowledge into the actual thought process which seems to be a skill which you practice by doing.