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Monday, December 6, 2010

Study and Diminishing Returns

When does persistence cross the line to diminishing returns? I came across that question that was actually asked by a salesman in reference to making sales calls on prospective customers and I got to thinking that the same question can also apply to one’s chess study. I was thinking of all those players who begin a study program to improve their chess and start buying opening books and spending hours on tactical servers. Almost all have testified of a rating increase but they also soon realize it was only a blip and their rating either plateaus or they begin to slide back. Most of them will then go back and try a different opening and study more tactics and what begins to happen is their improvement, despite their persistence, has resulted in diminishing returns.

One Sales Manager’s answer was, “I think if a sales person is thinking that they have to be persistent, I would be looking at the quality of their approach, how they think about selling! If they have to keep calling, and see that there is no returned calls, then go back to the drawing board and answer these questions.”

Reword that to apply to chess study habits and you could say, ““I think if a chess player is thinking that they have to be persistent in studying the same material, I would be looking at the quality of their approach, how they think about chess! If they have to keep studying the same thing, and see that there is no improvement, then go back to the drawing board and answer these questions.”

He then gave some questions salesmen need to answer and I have reworded them to apply to chess study. Of course there is going to come a time when a player stops improving, but until he know when that is, he will keep trying.

1. Does the student understand the value of what they are learning and how it will make them a stronger player?
Truth is most can’t. That’s why they almost always say they are going to wait and study strategy or endings or switch to mainline openings when they reach a specific level, like 1800 or 2000 or master. Most never reach those levels because they don’t realize that in order to do so you have to consistently beat lower rated players and they can’t do that. In order to consistently beat lower rated players you have to understand chess better than they do. If all you ever study are the same things they study, how can it happen that your understanding will be better than theirs?

2. Can they articulate what their goal is in specifics?
Most players think only in general terms like increase their rating by x-number of points or become more proficient in tactics. You have to have specific goals. Like what are the prerequisites for the Classic B Sacrifice to be effective? What are the prerequisites for the attack on the uncastled K by the sacrifice on f7? Mastering R and P endings. Learning about N-outposts, etc.

4. Are they focused in their study?
Most just want to have fun. Think back to school or college. Was hitting the books and learning something new and memorizing a lot of stuff ever fun? Probably not, but you had to do it if you expected to pass the course. Learning R and P endings isn’t always fun, but you need to know them. You probably also learned a lot of what seemed at the time to be superfluous information, but it added to your overall understanding and one day you got into a situation where you recalled it and found it useful.

5. Do they really understand why the goal is in the first place? It’s not about numbers, it's about quality.
This is closely related to #4. Most players seem more interested in completing a preset number of tactics or spending a specific amount of time on study rather than spending quality time and actually learning something new.

6. Most study plans waste time and money and deliver no results.
If you are like me you probably bought a lot of chess books with good intentions, but it was soon replaced with another one that looked even more promising. The result is a shelf full of books we never got around to actually studying.

7. Stop what's not working and go back to the drawing board.
If you rating isn’t improving or has stagnated and your plan isn’t working, try learning something new.

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