This post concludes my discussion of Willy Hendriks’ Move First, Think Later. It was great fun to do some armchair philosophy on chess improvement again, but it’s time to return to learning chess instead of learning to learn chess ;-) Having perused Hendriks’s book some more, here are four conclusions I draw from it:
Chess improvement psychology. “Psychologizing” chess seems easy: you just look at what’s going on in your own head and analyze away, right? However, as Hendriks convincingly demonstrates, it’s actually quite hard to reach any firm conclusions about the chess that’s happening inside our brains, and therefore a modest attitude about what we can and can’t know is in order. To cite good old Socrates: You know nothing, Jon Snow! Or something like that.
Cause and effect? One more lesson in psychology that I’m taking away from Move First, Think Later is that cause and effect is a pretty tricky concept when it comes to the brain. We are easily deluded into thinking that thought A causes thought B because that is our subjective experience. Similarly, we identify a cause-and-effect relationship that in reality may actually work the other way round. In addition to phenomena such as hindsight bias, Hendrik cites the causal relationship between mastery, nature (talent) and nurture (training) as an example. When somebody gets really good really fast, is it primarily their excellent training that causes their moderate talent to bloom into mastery? Or was the effectiveness of the training method primarily a result of their talent? Is a grandmaster’s chess module simply the result of a lot of chess study, or is it really their talent that allowed them to put their study time to such good use? We are well advised to always question the validity of statements about cause and effect when we talk about the brain, because it is a hellishly complicated machine. By the same token, we may question explanations about how we find moves. To use an example given by AoxomoxoA in a recent comment: Do we find 1. … Le8 in the previous post because we ask ourselves “Which is Black’s worst piece?” or do we actually ask this question after our chess module has already subconsciously seen Le8? In a practical sense, the answer to this question is irrelevant; as long as you find Le8 (or any other good move), you’re doing fine. But we have to be aware that we might not be accurately describing what’s going on inside our chess mind.
A James Randi attitude to chess improvement. To me, Hendrik’s a bit like a James Randi of chess: with a healthy mix of scepticism and humour, he exposes illusions about chess improvement. If you seek the holy grail of chess improvement, this is a great book to put the issue into perspective.
Be wary of generalisations. As mentioned in my previous post, I do believe generalization/verbalization play an important role in teaching, and having re-read the last couple of chapters in Move First, Think Later, I don’t think Hendrik would disagree, really. While he does sketch out some non-verbal learning methods, he doesn’t object to the tried-and-tested method of simply listening to better players explain what they see in a position as long as they’re not dogmatic or pedantic, or are claiming to provide a general conceptual search algorithm for finding concrete moves. Be that as it may, Hendrik makes a fair point when he suggests we ought to be wary of generalizations. Whenever we are given advice of a general nature, we should ask ourselves “What concrete chunks and move patterns do I actually take away from this?”.
Chess improvement methods. Hendriks comments on a variety of methods and suggests some new ones using databases and computer engines. I think I’ll give his “listening to music while looking at master games playing automatically” a shot because it satisfies the most important condition of my chess improvement philosophy: have fun doing it. ;-) On a more serious note, I’ll try to discipline myself more and study concrete positions on my own before looking at general explanations, which will hopefully allow me to detect some of the deficiencies of my chess module and make it easier for my chess intuition to absorb the chunks provided by the explanations.