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Friday, April 23, 2010

Pattern Recognition…again

I’m still seeing post on just about every chess forum you can name where novice players, and even some average to above average players, are asking how to best improve one’s playing level. The usual answers are to play certain openings and practice tactics. A few more enlightened posters recommend throwing in some endgame study.

Most of these people miss the point. Even though tactics study is essential most players miss the point of such studies. I’ve seen advice ranging from just look at the position and try various moves until you find one that works to practicing the ridiculous and discredited de la Maza method.

We are swamped with books on openings, the majority of which are too advanced to be of any use to the average player, books (and websites) on tactics, rehashes of middlegame positions, and the list goes on and on. Most of these books aren’t worth reading…Korchnoi said so, not me.

In reviewing the book Secrets of Chess Intuition, Jeremy Silman wrote, “In the foreword, Anand was quoted as saying, ‘Intuition is the first move I think of.’ Beliavsky addressed this quote in the following way: ‘Sure enough, but on what criteria does this move enter our head in the first place? Naturally, this comes from our knowledge of chess and previous experience.’
“Psychologist and grandmaster Helmut Pfleger regards intuition to be something that cannot be substantiated rationally, and is in effect, a feeling.
“Intuition is the immediate awareness of the position, but this is difficult to explain logically. Intuition in a sense depends on knowledge; the more you accumulate, the better your intuition becomes.” World Champion Vladimir Kramnik
“… pattern recognition (i.e., the ability to instantly know where the pieces belong based on a deep knowledge and familiarity with pawn structures and developmental or tactical patterns) is a learned skill…
“Personally, I feel that 99.9% of chess is based on some form of pattern recognition.”

Judith Polgar wrote “One of the biggest misconceptions about chess is it requires a lot of memorization. In reality, while some memorization is required, pattern recognition plays a crucial part in chess mastery.”

Several studies have tried to address the difference between grandmasters and the average player. The differences between GM’s and average players (even master and IM’s) players is that grandmaster play effortlessly and wins most of the time. This is best seen in simultaneous displays even though thinking time is only few seconds per move. This is attributed to the GM pulling information about the positions out of his long-term memory, which is a very fast process, while amateurs have to analyze the position. This process requires storage of a substantial amount of positions in the long-term memory.

This method can be also applied to studying chess tactics. A set of tactics problems is solved over and over again until solving them becomes automatic - the solution is recognized on first sight without the need for analyzing the position. Even doing this the brain has to rely on recognizing the most important features of the position instead of the position of each individual piece on the board. This requires more than just solving the problem. It requires one to become familiar with the motif that makes the tactic work. Themes such as forks, pins, etc.

When seeking advice of strong players about how to improve one often finds their advice is vague and unhelpful. I think this is because they often do not know exactly how they think or arrive at a good move.  Child prodigy Samuel Reshevsky said as much. Once watching world class GM Tony Miles analyze with an IM I noticed several times when the IM suggested a moves, Miles would tell him it was no good. When asked why, all Miles could say was, “It just isn’t.” He wasn’t being flippant or condescending. I think he simply could not say why; he just “knew.”

Strong players, when shown an unfamiliar chess position for only a few seconds, can reproduce it with very few mistakes. However this is only when they are given positions taken from actual games. In fantasy or random positions masters do no better than average players.

Occasionally it is claimed masters have amazing powers of visualization and can accurately visualize the position many moves ahead. While this may be the case, it is the evaluation of those positions that really matter.  It often surprises lower rated player how far ahead GM’s actually calculate in many positions.

In the view of many psychologists it is that the greatest difference in chess skill between masters and amateurs is pattern recognition. They instantly see positional themes like pawn chains, weak squares, and open lines, as well as tactical possibilities like Knight forks. Patterns of pieces such as weakened King positions and Rook batteries are recognized and evaluated as the player decides what the best move is.  Lack of pattern recognition is why new players are often the victim of quick losses like back rank mates. They fail to notice the danger. In contrast experienced players automatically see the threat and easily avoid it. Calculation is not necessary.

Even GM’s have their opinions on this issue. In Think Like a GM, Alexander Kotov advocated the calculation approach, discussing how to calculate by selecting and analyzing candidate moves. Nimzovitch emphasized positional judgment and pattern recognition in My System.  GM Andrew Soltis claims that chess is 99% calculation. He also points out most calculation among GM’s is to see about two moves ahead. The key, as Soltis points out in the book, is in how the player assesses the position.

Computers out-calculate humans in terms of the sheer number of moves but the human player can often guide play into positions that the engines do not evaluate properly. Look at the cross table in any GM-level correspondence event where computer use is an accepted fact of life. Somebody always loses most of their games. It’s because the stronger players are better able to get into positions computers misjudge.

Accurate pattern recognition is what separates masters from average players, so breaking complex positions into their basic components is much more likely to facilitate learning. Former world champion Max Euwe said "strategy requires thought, tactics requires observation." What Euwe was saying was an important concept for solving tactical chess problems is pattern recognition.

One of the differences between masters and relatively strong amateurs is in the way they perceive a chess position within the first few seconds. Masters are good at recognizing patterns almost instantly.

Most models for the storage of complex pattern in memory are based on what is know as chunking theory. When masters and amateurs were briefly shown a chess position and then asked to reconstruct it instead of placing one piece after another on the board, masters tended to reconstruct the position by placing groups of pieces on the board. This method is common when one has to memorize a number. We tend to group them into ‘chunks.’ The average untrained person is able to recall a number with up to 7 digits. However, when an individual is given a group of familiar numbers, let's say phone numbers of friends or family, he/she can remember about 7 different numbers.

GM Greg Serper wrote “From my teaching experience I know that sometimes chess players even become discouraged by brilliant games because they doubt their own abilities to ever play like this. Yes, chess is a very complicated game, but fortunately it is a very simple game as well. What I mean is, it is very difficult to play like Tal or Kasparov, calculating 10 moves deep combinations. But in the majority of the games we don’t need to calculate that far, so if you are good in 3-4 move tactics, you can be a very strong chess player. Unfortunately, for many players it is very difficult to calculate even for 3-4 moves ahead.”
“I have a good news for them! It is relatively easy to fix this problem. All you need to do is to learn typical tactical patterns and practice a lot. At some point you’ll be so proficient in typical tactical patterns that you’ll see tactical ideas practically in any position!”

Back in the 1960’s US Senior Master Ken Smith recommended playing over hundreds of unannotated games, spending 5-10 minutes per game and trying to guess the next move. One veteran master advised me this would work, so I tried it.

At first the results were pretty discouraging because I was only scoring about 15-20 percent. My rating at that time was about 1700. After about 3 months and several hundred games the result was approaching 70 percent. My next tournament was a major one in Chicago and I scored 4 straight wins against players rated 1800-2100 and in the last round lost to Chicago legend, 2400+ rated Morris Giles and went home with a trophy and a few dollars.

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