This another improvement theory post and a follow up to A.C.I.D.T.R.I.P., including Blunderprone’s comment. Let me preface this by saying that yesternight I had what’s likely going to be a life-changing experience (not chess-related, and hard to fathom whether it’ll be for better or worse), that my head is spinning, that I’ve hardly slept and yet can’t find sleep, and that I’m going to use this post go get my mind off of things, if only for just an hour or so. That’s something I’ve always loved about the long OTB game in chess: how you can lose yourself on the board, how you are given this set space of 64 squares and 3 hours in which the rules are clear and it’s just you and the board and the pieces. Chess, despite being a harsh mistress sometimes, despite often being a jungle, despite its frustrations and setbacks and unforgiving nature, can offer you that certain tranquility of the active mind, a focus on something ephemeral, seemingly useless even, and yet a clarity and challenge often missing from life that can set your mind at peace for an hour or two.
For those who’re not in the know and haven’t followed Confessions of a Chess Novice or Blunderprone, A.C.I.S. (adult chess improvement seekers) is the new moniker for the adult improvement movement, if you want to call it that. Having followed the adult improvement scene (oh stop the snickering already, I’m talking chess here) for quite some time, but having missed out on the MDM Knights Errant craze, I’d be honoured to participate in this new effort in one way or another. Obviously, I’ve been trying to make my own original contribution to the chess improvement scene with this blog, and I’m very happy with the result so far, if I may say so myself. But it’s one thing doing your own spiel and another being involved in some kind of group effort. As Blunderprone has mentioned in the comment, it’s just a whole different ballgame, both in terms of effort and motivation, when you’re part of something bigger. Hence I’ll be watching and lurking but also trying to actively comment and post on how the ACIS of Caissa fend for themselves.
My first attempt in this regard is a response to Blunderprone’s comment. To wit:
My current ACIS of Caissa quest, is to actually follow a model of Rolf Wetzell suggesting to create patterns from your own experience to retrain you out of the bad habits. It’s easier said than done. First there is entering the games, especially the ones from the losses. Coming to terms with my blundering requires looking in a mirror without flinching and wincing. After I enter the game, then its further self abuse of creating the training positions to study. I sit down with the intention of doing such a thing but find every excuse to avoid it. I answer email, read one last blog, perhaps check facebook… you get the idea… avoidance.
I’d like to say two things about that: First, when I compare this to my chess study, I feel I am indeed looking at an entirely different personality type. While I tend to be more reluctant to type lost games into my computer, I by no means dislike it. Quite the opposite; I think analysing my own games with the computer is enormously exciting, especially because of the blunder factor. These moves are my moves; they’re closest and most familiar to me; I know exactly why I made them (be it a strategic decision, a tactical decision, laziness, time pressure, what have you)… I’ve reached an intimacy with the moves and the game that otherwise I’d never have, and putting the game into the computer is like finding out more about this intimate stranger that’s the game, confronting your own thoughts to the brute force of calculation. And I never wince at my blunders. I mean, they’re frustrating, and they’re discouraging, but most of all they’re motivating. They’re telling me that I’ve got to look harder. I won’t say I don’t savour the occasional blunder-free performance, but I definitely don’t mind the occasional blunderfest. Although I must say I share the feeling about avoiding opportunities for improvement and serious study, about missing out on true commitment and dedication. I’ve come to regard this as something I’m just really not good at. Some coaches, notably Josh Waitzkin, have inspired me to work on that to a degree, but I still haven’t embraced it, let alone put it into practice, to any significant extent.
Which brings me to the second point: Wetzell’s flashcard system. I’m not familiar with Wetzell… so I’m basing my judgement on your explanation that Wetzell wants you “to create patterns from your own experience to retrain you out of the bad habits”. I imagine this means a picture of a board and maybe a commentary such as “Black moved 23. g4” and you have to figure out why this was a bad move at the time and what you should have moved instead. As I’ve said several times now, I don’t necessarily dislike this method; for one, I think it’s an improvement over the traditional tactics puzzle because it’s tied to your own experience your own mistakes. On the other hand, the criticism still applies: it’s an artificial situation that pretends not to be. You’re facing a very concrete position, so you are led to believe that you’re actually playing chess, but at the same time you know that something’s wrong with the position, and that’s a luxury you don’t have in an actual chess game.
That’s why I’ve decided for myself that at this stage, I shall make my chess study decidedly abstract and artificial. My chess gifs don’t pretend to be real chess positions. They illustrate abstract principles tied to specific piece placements and move orders. What they’re not training at all is visualisation or chess thinking. Staring at a gif repeatedly doesn’t help you with your calculation skills. Now, I don’t question for a second the overwhelming importance of tactics in chess. I’ve come to believe that right now I’m at the stage where I don’t commit outright blunders (e.g. hanging a piece) in longer games, but also fail to make deep calculations. However, I also believe that as an adult player below 2000 it’s more important and more practical to study abstract principles or typical middlegame patterns to score practical results and only once you reach 1900/2000 start worrying again about tactics. That doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring tactics training altogether; we don’t want to throw out the bath water with the baby, after all. What it means is a different set of priorities: focus on opening study, on general middle game patterns for piece placement, move sequences and plans, and learning certain typical endgame positions by heart. I feel that only once that’s been achieved, intense tactical training aka puzzles becomes necessary, and that indeed only then are you able to really soak up the patterns found in the puzzles, because you’ll be at a level where you look at a position and recognise certain positional features instantly, and that allows you to situate the specific tactic into a larger framework of reference.
I realise I’m really talking out of my ass here and that the proof of the pudding lies in eating it. I’m very willing to keep you up to date with my approach and the progress I’m making. One recent article I read that I thought confirmed my thoughts was Tom Rose’s (Lack of) Progress Report. A mid-life 2000-player trying to improve, Rose initially seems to champion the tactics-tactics-tactics approach, saying “It is only when you have painfully worked out the truth from your own experience that you notice, and more importantly, really deeply feel, what chess teachers have been saying all along [namely that] strategy makes the game smoother or rougher; it is tactical play that wins and loses.” Later on in the article, however, he comments on puzzles as a means to improve your tactics skills:
The answer is that these tests do not measure real-life tactical skill at all, any more than skill in juggling a football with the feet demonstrates effectiveness as a soccer player. The ability to solve selected tactical puzzles does not automatically carry over to competitive chess. It is only one component of useful tactical skill. The big difference is that in a puzzle you know there is something to be found. Often you are even told what kind of combination you are looking for.
He comes to the conclusion that one major way to improve is to follow a move-analysis system for each move. Which brings us full circle to the Knights Errant and BDK’s and Temposchlucker’s discussion of such systems. Maybe it’s time to revisit the great effort they’ve put into articulating such systems back in the day and to ask questions not only about what system to use but also how to best practise it.