(Adult Chess Improvers Driven To Really Improve Practically) is the acronym suggested by Liquid Egg Product over at Confessions of a Chess Novice to reinvigorate the chess improvement blogosphere under a new guise. I have never been a part of the Knights Errant, nor have I expressed much enthusiasm or indeed trust in the circles method or any tactics-heavy training programme. This is not to say that I dismiss tactics entirely; indeed, I do my 5-10 puzzless on ChessTempo every now and then (Rating: 1899.9, RD: 56.15). However, I still feel tactics puzzles are much too concrete and artificial (by virtue of your being told that there is a tactic) to acquire chunks. I value them for practising my calculation ability in general, e.g. for honing visualisation skills or for anticipating moves. I do not see much happening with respect to storing chunks, though.
In answering why this should be so, I am tempted to draw parallels between chess improvement and language development: once we reach a certain aptitude, an expert structure if you will, we will be able to incorporate (often unconsciously) chunks into the existing network of knowledge by merely consuming a lot of source material (in this case, tactics puzzles). As a non-native speaker of English who’s been reading and listening to English a lot, I often surprise myself with expressions that I use or recognise that I wasn’t aware I knew. This, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon. I first had to practise English for several years consistently with traditional methods before I could immerse myself in the language to a degree where I stopped worrying about conscious learning and picked up stuff unconsciously, and I would credit this ability to the fact that I already had an “expert structure” in place. New teaching methods use a similar approach; the “advance organizer” teaching method, for instance, seeks to offer students an overview of a topic first, where everything that needs to be known is already visible, and only then proceed to look at the various elements in detail. This runs counter to more traditional approaches where teachers used to keep knowledge “hidden” from students and only gradually revealed it.
So at this stage, I feel it’s more appropriate for me to absorb abstract principles rather than drown myself in tactics puzzles. And the approach I’m following, obviously, is the Chunky Rook approach: animated gifs illustrating abstract principles or move orders. Have I had any success since the blog’s inauguration in March? Back then, I said: “The moment of truth is the moment I make a (good) decision based upon an idea I retained from watching a gif, the moment I’m looking at wooden pieces on a wooden board when suddenly an animated bishop on blue squares pops into my head …” And I’m very happy to announce that this has indeed been the case. I’ve played roughly twelve serious OTB games since March. I lost 2–0-4 against a player rated at 2000. I have scored 4-1-1 at a tournament in the 1500-1600 bracket. My last four games were 1:0 against a 1730, 0.5:0.5 against a 1800, 0.5:0.5 against a 1700, and a loss against a 1500. Among those games, the last one was perhaps the most motivating. Take a look at this position from the game (I am Black, and it’s my move):
I played badly that day. But what happened at this juncture was very reassuring. When I had looked at this position a few moves ago, I was instantly reminded of this:
And I remembered that taking the bishop in this situation would be a bad choice, because you help White to bolster his centre and open a dangerous file for the rook. And yet, despite recognising this instantly in the game, I thought, “fuck it”, it’s a knight for a bishop and he’ll have to prove to me that the pattern’s right. Now, the game could have gone either way. There could have been a blunder. According to Crafty, Black’s got an 0.3 advantage in the above situation that drops to 0.0 after the knight captures the bishop. So no big deal, objectively speaking. But that’s not what matters in my opinion. What matters is that the chunk entered my mind at the right time. That I was able to instantly recognise a feature and gauge a potential continuation of the position.
There’s no doubt that the application of such chunks is limited, that they only stick if they are very basic, and that there’s always a danger of neglecting concrete calculation or missing something. And yet I still believe the approach has merit. While analysing a game recently with my opponent, I asked him whether the following knight manoeuvre in the Ruy Lopez was typical, which he confirmed.
I had not anticipated this manoeuvre during the game, but the moment he moved the knight, an illustrated gif formed in my mind. I believe this is an example of how you become better and better at absorbing patterns or chunks once an expert structure is in place; in this case, the expert structure might be called “certain openings use certain standard manoeuvres” or whatever. Doesn’t really matter. What matters is that when you practise chess on the basis of abstract principles, you create a structure (be it intuition or explicit knowledge) for standard situations, which serves as a coat hanger for absorbing more and more concrete patterns pertaining to that structure. Judging from my current experience, such chunks are extremely valuable to me in practical play. They give me ideas about my own plans and my opponent’s plan tied to concrete move sequences or piece squares, and that makes the calculation load and the burden of deciding on a move much easier — a very practical benefit indeed.