"...a Chessmaster should be a combination of a beast of prey and a monk."

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Some notes about training methods

Just been thinking about some things lately and wanted to write a post about them. These are just my ideas and I certainly don't have any authority on the subject. Still, I think it can be valuable for me to write out my thoughts, and it's possible someone else might be interested. In one of my early posts I believe I raised the question of chess skill being more a question of knowledge, or more like the skill of a musical instrument. I definitely believe it to be a mixture at this point. There's plenty of knowledge elements where progress is made by learning ideas, like certain key ideas in king and pawn endgames or variations of opening theory. However, there's a huge component that is more like a skill where practice, much like practicing playing an instrument matters. Jonathan Rowson in his "Chess for Zebras" talks about the comparison with the practiced skill as well.

I agree with the commonly held view that at my level the most value in terms of improvement is to be gotten from studying tactics. This makes a lot of sense to me.A really awesome thing about chess training these days is the wealth of available material for doing tactics training. I have huge stores of problems on my computer and in my collection of chess books. There's also really great sites like chesstempo. There are actually two related things here though. One is more traditional "mate in x" problems, and the other are the gain material type problems. I have heard and it makes sense to me that it's wise to have a balance between these two and that it should favor the tactics. I myself have been doing more mate problems lately because I spent a lot of time focusing on the tactics and maybe not enough time on mates.

I think there are some interesting issues to think about here. One question is the sort of Michael de la Maza question. Can tactics training alone get you to an advanced level (say 2000)? Another question is the relationship between calculation and memory with tactics training.

Regarding the first question, I am obviously not qualified in any sense to make a statement. I can however make a statement about what I want from chess training and how I approach the question. As I said above it makes sense to me that this should be the bulk of training at my level. I think there are some appealing things about tactics training. The tasks are bite sized, with clear condition, so there's a very direct sense of satisfaction in being able to say "I did x number of tactics today." There's also a very direct feedback, so there's no wondering about shades of grey or complex concepts. You either solved the tactic or you didn't. I think these things make tactics training very quantifiable and satisfying. There also seems to be a pretty clear correlation at least from a lot of word of mouth between training this way and playing performance increase. I generally like tactics and mate puzzles, (though I do at times get a bit bored), but I think it's a bit of a mistake to discount other methods of studying the game because they aren't so quantifiable.

The flip side of the coin here is that I like chess because it's very complicated and there are a lot of ideas. I like tactics training but if that's all there was to chess I don't think I would feel as drawn to the game. I obviously don't know anything about de la Maza's life, but it seems interesting that from what I have heard he gave up chess after meeting his goal of getting to 2000. Part of me feels like that kind of makes sense in a way. If all chess is, is getting good at tactics then it makes sense that it wouldn't have that drawing power to make you keep coming back. To get to the point, that's not what I want chess to be for me, so I seek to learn about many facets of the game, from opening theory, to strategy, to endgames, and I also like the history and culture of the game. For me due to these concerns going over historical games is another big part of my training.

The other issue that I raised with tactics is the idea of calculation vs memory. Some people argue that the point of doing tactics training is to cram patterns into your head. Dan Heisman for instance suggests that an important part of tactics training is the familiarity with tactical patterns. They suggest that if you don't solve the problem in a fairly small amount of time (by my standards) you should give up and look at the answer, because learning the pattern is more important than calculating the answer. One argument that make is that strong players unquestionably have a storehouse of such patterns that they are able to call upon as an aid to their calculation. I don't really like these arguments. For me, tactics training is calculation training. The way I optimally solve a problem is to look and see all the wrinkles of the problem before I input the solution or consider myself finished with it. Obviously I am human and there are times when I do more guesswork or when I go off half cocked. I'm talking about my optimal idea that I strive for. My reply to the argument about the strong players having a storehouse of patterns is that it seems possible to me that they built up those storehouses through practicing calculation, so the patterns got ingrained. If that is true, then it's possible that the attempt to cut corners and simply memorize the patterns will backfire because you aren't actually putting in the work that will build that storehouse. There's something about that way of looking at it that just seems a bit confused. Like, it's possible that you are completely right about the strong players having these storehouses of patterns but still wrong about the way that they should be built up. It doesn't follow logically to me that you should just be able to short circuit the process and jump to the conclusion. Anyways, at the personal level I feel that's true for me. Memorizing doesn't work for me unless I have many repetitions or I have a narrative that I can fit the ideas into. For the record, here is a link to a post by a very active member of chesstempo and apparently an FM. Note his first point is essentially in agreement with me.

Other than that, I do a number of things. One big one that I like a lot is going over historical games. I very much enjoy going over commented games. Right now as I mention in a previous post I am going over the games from Zurich 1953 using both Bronstein's and Najdorf's tournament books. I am enjoying it quite a bit and feel I am learning from the commentary. I also intend to start studying some commented Lasker games in the near future. I obviously am not plumbing the depths of these games and there is much I don't understand but I'm ok with that. The other thing is uncommented games. I haven't done as much of this but the Anderssen games I have posted here are what I mean and I would like to do more. The idea is to find uncommented games and analyze them. I have found the ones I did quite enjoyable and I think it's quite valuable as well. For this, I think it's important to pick games that are comprehensible to you. I've mentioned this before, but for me to jump in and try to analyze the games from the Kasparov Karpov matches just isn't going to bear much fruit because it's just too far beyond my understanding level. I don't mean seeing all the details here. I just mean even being able to understand the themes of the games. That's why I started at the beginning of chess history. I have looked at the Greco analysis/game records before and a little bit a the La Bourdonais McDonnel matches. Adolf Anderssen seems to be a good place for me now. I also don't expect to be able to understand all of his games. And when I look at a game I don't expect or claim to understand all of what I am looking at. However, I think the process of looking at different games and picking ones that seem comprehensible and then practicing my analysis skill on them are valuable.

Going along with the historical games idea, I have heard it can be a good idea to have a chess hero, who you emulate. I'm less sure about this one and it may be too artificial to pick one for purpose of picking a chess hero, but I have decided to give it a try and picked Emanuel Lasker. He's a world champion and he's said to have a universal style. This appeals to me because I generally agree with the people who say improvers like me shouldn't try to have a style, rather we should seek to improve our chess and eliminate weaknesses. I think that makes a lot of sense. So that's why if I am going to have a chess hero it would be one who was know for being well rounded. Also, we both studied philosophy, and I also haven't heard really anything bad about Lasker as a person.

Openings is another area that is often talked about. I agree with the common consensus that for my level it's not very important to study openings. However, I don't think that means I shouldn't study them at all. I think it makes a lot of sense to look up the openings that occur in your games and try to understand where you were out of your own book and what that means in this particular case. I do study lines that I haven't seen but to be honest my memory isn't that good for rote memorization. If I have played a variation or if there's an idea I can latch onto, then I am much more likely to remember the variations, and that's why learning through my own games seems like a good thing. That's part of why I like to save my games and review them in the tree structure in chess assistant. I was just today looking at some variations in the Ruy Lopez and I learned a fair bit by reviewing the games I had played as well as reading from the resources. As far as openings go, I would definitely recommend Paul van der Sterren's "Fundamental Chess Openings". This book is really amazing and is strong contender for best or at least most useful chess book I have so far bought. Very clear explanations of the ideas of the moves often relating to the history of the variations. I won't say it's the only opening resource you need at a low level but it's quite valuable.

I've also been doing more work on chess endings lately. Particularly solving some simple studies. These have mostly been of the King + Pawns variety. As I mentioned recently Laszlo Polgar's "Chess Endgames" is a good source. But obviously this has involved some other things like the bishop and knight checkmates that I posted about recently. I've also tried to learn some basic rook endgame concepts. I think though this is another area where doing has to work with learning. I definitely appreciate descriptions of some key concepts but I need to practice these things to really get better.

Another thing I do is keeping a chess journal as well as this blog. It's pretty basic but I write down the stuff I do every day relating to chess. I find this helps me to both have a sense of accomplishment and to have an accurate idea of how much I am actually doing. I also think the blog has been helpful in spurring me to do some things and to be a bit involved in the chess improvement community.

There's also some things I would like to do more of. Primarily this is analyzing my own games. I believe the arguments of people who say this is a crucial method for improvement. I guess it seems like when I analyze my games I write down a lot of what was going on in my head but I'm not so good at actually looking at the variations. I think that's a mistake. I think the point is to be able to compare what was going on in your mind with some more objective conclusions about what was actual. I just find it easier to pry into the variations with an Anderssen game. I feel when I review my own games I often just can't see beyond my own ideas. One option here is just to let some time go by and look at the game then. This can definitely help, but sometimes I feel too far removed then, like the moves just seem dumb. Anyway, Chessadmin's blog "Path's to Chess Mastery" is kind of my guiding light here. It seems to me he does a pretty good job looking at his games and comparing the things in his mind with more objective conclusions.

Well, that was a very long post, but I do feel it's helped me to crystallize some things. Here's hoping someone else can get something from my musings.


  1. http://empiricalrabbit.blogspot.de/2012/06/michael-de-la-maza-verdict.html

  2. Thanks for the link. I do believe I had seen this before. In my post I didn't want to get into those questions as my point is somewhat different. I just wanted to use that as a springboard for saying that's not what I want my program to be like. I can understand why people, particularly people who invested in the method would want to sort out the truth of those questions.

  3. The one thing I have seen from the De Maza type tactical study is that 1) IT becomes the focus instead of the game itself. 2) This type of singular study seems to lead to burn out much more often than other balanced approaches.

    Tactics really do reign supreme for beginners and club players but all the good players I meet at clubs all seem to have balanced approaches. One's love of the game must be cultivated as well as skill for long term growth to occur and be sustainable.

  4. I agree Tommyg. That was the point I was more aiming at.

  5. the typical training regime is to do ~25% of the training in tactics, that works with kids quite well.
    A training method with real improvement for adults is unknown as far as i see. What does not work for shure is, to do many things for short time.
    All good adult players i meet in all clubs dont improve exept one who did exclusevly study mastergames( not even played a lot , just maybe 6 games a year ). He did reach about my level and then no further improvement was possible.

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  7. P.S. I am member of 3 chessclubs with together more than 200 members (including Masters), I interview almost every of my opponents and clubmembers. No one knows a method to improve substantially( more than 100-200 points ).The examples from books and the internet about improvement of adult chessplayers are all extreme dubious except Wetzell. Of course a bloody beginner will get a little better but someone who already played seriously chess for several years will not improve much further if he is an adult.
    I still wait for for the exeption to this rule ( usually there are exceptions to this type of rules), but i did not see one in person until now

  8. What is your definition of an adult?
    At 21(having played 150 or so tournament games over the past 5 years so no rank beginner) I was rated 1382 with an all-time high of 1429.
    I am now rated 1792 with an all-time high of 1886 and have been 1873 this year.
    That is 363-491 point improvement depending on which endpoints you use.

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  10. Typically after 30 there is no improvement. Kids an youngesers do improve something like 100-200 elo points per year with good / excellent training. Such improvement rates are common for to GM's in their youth, with titled chess Trainers of high reputation.
    Your improvement is astonishing but now it gets really interesting, can you break the 2000 permanently ??
    Can you tell us how your training was / is ?

  11. I am now 39. At age 25 my all-time high was in the mid-1600s. It is now high 1800s. During that time I finished my education, got married, and had 2 kids and frequently studied chess very little but did play at least some every year.
    A friend of mine broke 2000 in 2001 at age 26. He is now 39 and a game or two away from 2200.
    Neither of us has ever had a trainer.
    My opening knowledge is complete crap.
    I spend maybe 30 minutes a week on tactics with huge gaps with little to no tactics work. I'll read something chess related many nights but then go days with reading nothing. Over the last 15 years I have read probably 50 chess books and most of them are well-recommended/famous/etc. I extremely rarely analyze my games.
    So no real regimen routinely. Of late I am doing the yusopov series(in book 2 of 9 now) and reading thru the Watson Opening series along with some semi-regular tactics work. I've always enjoyed the endgame so I've read a dozen or more endgame books and greatly outperform my rating there.
    I have no idea what this means as far as a plan.

  12. Temposchlucker ( http://temposchlucker.blogspot.de/ ) was able to improve i think something like 300? points in many years as an adult with a lot of work , You did improve the last 13 years 200+ elopoints and your friend did gain 200 points during the last 13 years too. Thats the gain of a young friend of mine ( 15 years old ) in the last 2 years, he is now >2000.last year we where about the same ~1900.
    A gain of 200 points as an adult rated ~1800 or more is seldom, would be very interesting if you could gain more with the right training. But maybe reading good chessbooks is already a good training, the most improving adult player i know in person made exactly this ( studying mastergames from books )..

  13. Thinking about it, i came to the conclusion we might talk about different things. I am talking about "substantial" improvement, like getting from 1500 to 2200 or from 1900 (me) to 2300 (FM). To change from Class B to Class A is in my eyes no "improvement". I should always put the word "substantial" in front of improvement.

    I think the idea that young folks have more free time and less serious problems and are so able to improve faster than adults is wrong in my opinion. As far as i remember i had WAY WAY more problems with 14 than with 39. Of course many of these problems i had with 14 are not "realy" important but they kept me "realy" busy!
    The key to "substantial" improvement are in my eyes the skills. While knowledge and abilitys can be (more or less easy ) improved at higher age, the ability to aquire skills gets much weaker with age. As far as i see the best method to measure chess-related ( motor ) skills is measuring the tactic performance at chessservers. Looking at the statistics of at least dozends ( if not hundreds) of tacticians i come to the conclusion that after about 4000 solved tactic puzzles seemingly no further improveent can be made as an adult.
    So if an adult want to improve in chess "a little", he should solve something like 4000 puzzles but not more ( just always enough to keep the level )
    Young people should use the special ability to aquire as many chess releted skills as possible and aquire "Knowlege" and "abilitys" later

  14. AS noted in my first post, I gained roughly 400 as an adult(if 21 counts as an adult) after being past the beginner non-tournament player stage(over 150 tournament games from 16-21). That is clearly above 200.
    I think most people really don't do a lot of work to improve.
    They half try some tactics problems but look up the answer after 15 seconds. They read some articles on chessbase/chess.com etc but definitely don't think about what they read, watch a video but take no notes and have 4 distractions in the background, read a dozen chess blogs, and think they've put in 12 hours of chess study this week.
    But in reality, they put in maybe an hour of study and 11 hours of loose association. An half of that hour was not useful as it was either too advanced(move 18 options in a najdorf sicilian side line) or too rare(I can now play Q+2pawns vs rook and 2 minor endgames perfectly) to be of any practical use.